Karma: It’s Not About what we Do.

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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

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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.

Comments

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

  1. Colleen says:

    Great article. I have heard this interpretation of agricultural karma often in the modern postural yoga scene. I think it comes from the Patanjali Yoga sutras which so many Yoga teachers have to read for 200 hr. training (i'll find the sutra and share). I appreciate the Buddhist perspective, as it supports a more compassionate worldview and requires us to be aware of the subtler intentions that guide our actions.

  2. Blade says:

    Great Article! This view of Karma is much more intellectually appealing and consistent than the view that has permeated popular culture. The wisdom of the authors really comes through. I can't wait to read the forthcoming book.

  3. Zorba says:

    The Authors of this post are incredibly knowledgeable. Deeply educated both in Buddhism and Modern Science. Their point of view is totally valid, well researched and well constructed. I am not as educated as they are, nor do I have as many years of practice. My realization is not as deep.

    That being said, and hoping to write with a sense of fairness, there are many schools of Buddhism. Each school of Buddhism has its own rules for deciphering what the Buddha meant. The view that the authors present here is that not everything is caused by karma. Valid. Buddha taught this. But, Buddha also taught that everything is produced by karma.

    "Deeds cause the multitude of worlds." Ch. 4 Verse 1 of the AbhidharmaKosha by Master Vasubandhu (C. 350)

    And, as far as I've been taught, a good student would have to study and play with what was written in the above article. In no way could the student dismiss those ideas. They are studied for years in the monastery. But, accepting them, one might be able to go beyond them to a place where everything is karma and everything is empty (including mind). And, yes, there is a danger of magical thinking. but as far as I can tell, if one studies properly, relies on a teacher (not blindly), and meditates on the real meaning of the teachings, then the "self-centered" mind will realize its own emptiness and crack open with love for all beings.

    But this is not at all necessary or true. I'm just saying this is another point of view.

  4. tammystone4444 says:

    I'm so happy to read about karma in this way, on these pages. Thank you so much for sharing this!

  5. Edward S says:

    This is a nice presentation on karma from the Hinayana school of Buddhist thought. However in the other schools of thought what you have called karma ( Intention ) is actually only one element of a karma. It is however stated in Buddhist scriptures that it is the largest element of a karma. Intention is often translated as motivation as well. But to say that karma is only intention is incorrect scripturally from other schools of Buddhist presentation.

    Reality is imputed by mind. This is something that not only the highest buddhist schools say across the board but also modern quantum mechanics.. Now why does my mind impute a set of circumstances and assemble a picture one way when someone else standing in the exact same space can impute an entirely different picture and story. The different qualities of mind and karma play a major role in the way that things are imputed.

    Also its worth mentioning that Buddhist philosophy does speak about karma in the way you say it doesn’t . For example in the Jataka tales of Lord Buddha. Tales of where Lord Buddha is recounting previous lives and then speaking about certain constructions of events and relating them to future ripening.

    In one event he recalls a young woman who offered a flower to The Buddha and because of her intention and power of the object of her offering ( the buddha) the girl later went on to become an arhat and part of that realization had to do with her offering to the Buddha.

    This article for me is touching on the Hinayana presentation of karma. Thank you for writing the article. Here is another presentation on karma that might be enjoyable to read and also consider.

    http://www.berzinarchives.com/web/en/archives/sut

    • Wiliam says:

      What reality is imputed by the mind when describing one school, or one mind, or one interpretation of reality as higher than another? What is the karma of this as intention?

    • Matthew says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful words Edward S. I just have one point and one question right now. First, the term "Hinayana" is somewhat problematic. It has various interpretations (lesser, smaller vehicle, etc) but it tends to be used in a subtly pejorative way to dismiss this view as lesser. It reminds me a bit like when Christians call the Tanach (The five books of moses, prophets and writings) the "Old Testament" in distinction from the "New Testament." It's subtle, but often what's implied is that it's old, like an old car, and thus not relevant anymore or at least doesn't stand up to the new. Second, I was wondering if you could clarify what the other elements of "a karma" are? If intention is the largest element, can you explain what the other elements are? Thanks, Matthew

      • Edward S Teddy S says:

        Hi Matthew its nice to be in contact with you.

        Theraveda is probably a more accurate description in our time, Hinayana is more of an old title. I have a couple problems with the presentation above which have arisen today as i thought further about it. I will will write about karma below but one thing I wanted to touch on was the relationship between subject and object. And also the idea of mind from the presentation above is that mind is a physical entity and not non physical. That isnt clearly stated above but its subtly implied by the presentation.

        Subject and object share a close relationship and one cannot exist without the other. This is illustrated not only in Madyamaka texts but also in modern presentations of quantum theory.The entire way a series of atoms behaves shifts dramatically just depending upon who is observing the atoms. In fact the very nature of the atoms themselves can change . This does in some sense illustrate that phenema dont have a an intrinsic nature ( which we both understand) but also depending upon the subject observing, an entirely different object will appear. Now why is it that when I observe an object it will behave entirely different, in fact, could quite literally be an entirely different object than the object that you perceive/impute ?

        Is this totally random ? and if its totally random how could there exist a developmental model when mind itself even though mind is non physical is also subject to observation ?

        Karma is classically laid out through my understanding of the Tibetan Buddhist presentation like this :

        Karma itself is usually classified within the Tibetan schools or Indian Buddhist schools as a mental urge TIbetan ( sems- pa) that brings us in the direction of a particular experience. Not the action itself but the urge. This urge is a mental factor which is always accompanied by three other mental factors. The first is distinguishing, the second is intention, and the third is an emotion that goes with it.

        Then 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.

        Part of this explanation is informed from Alexender Berzins website. He was a student of one of His Holiness's tutors.

        Please see his website here for more on the Mahayana Tibetan Presentation on karma. Worth noting is that his description on mental continuums and rebirth are the best i have found to date.
        http://www.berzinarchives.com/web/en/archives/sut

        • Culadasa says:

          Hi Edward,

          Thank you for commenting on our article. I’d like to make two points in response to you. First, to equate Hinayana with Theravada is a historical error, although quite a common one. Hinayana refers to schools of Buddhist thought that developed after the schism whose remnants today are the Theravada and Mahayana. Therefore, properly speaking, Hinayana refers not to the Theravada, but to antecedent schools in what subsequently became the Mahayana. Not that it makes that much difference in this discussion, because the argument we present here is to be found in both the Mahayana (indeed, you invoke it yourself in your comment) as well as the Theravada. Likewise, the "agricultural" view of karma is, unfortunately, equally prevalent among the Theravada and Mahayana.

          The more important point I’d like to make is that everything you describe up until you discuss the Four General Laws of Karma is entirely consistent with this article. However, when you go on to describe the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th of these laws, you suddenly shift to interpreting karma as a physical action in the world, rather than as a "mental urge TIbetan ( sems- pa) that brings us in the direction of a particular experience."

          The issue is that in making this shift in interpretation, we end up back at the mistaken view of agricultural karma. For instance, in your description of the 3rd law, you give an example of karma ripening in terms of a physical event, such as a plane crash happening to a person. But as we try to explain in the article, the events that befall people are also determined by other levels of causality beyond (but interacting with) the karmic – i.e., the laws of material, biological, and psychological causality. Acts of speech and body produce consequences via those laws that often – but not always – rebound back on the person who performs those acts. Karma is the intentions that lie behind those acts.

          The important thing to remember is that those intentions do inevitably affect the mind of the person holding them. There are no exceptions! That is karmic causality and the law of karma. The law of karma says that our mental intentions, thoughts, and emotions have direct consequences on us, whether or not we ever speak or act on them. It’s just that those consequences are on our own minds. In other words, we create ourselves, moment by moment, through those mental acts. Who we are now is determined by the cumulative effects of our past karma (i.e. intentions). Who we will be in the future is determined by how the karma we create now interacts in our mind with that past cumulative karma. We often don’t have any control over what external events befall us. But how our mind interprets our experiences, and whether or not we suffer as a result, is the ripening of our karma.

          Again, 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.

          Also, I’d note that the ideas of mental continuums and rebirth aren’t necessary to this explanation of karma, but can be incorporated if wished. Rather, understanding karma as intention is a powerful tool that can be used to reshape the mind, creating the kind of karma that leads to Awakening in this very life.

          It is my sincere hope that you and others find this article and comment helpful, or at least food for thought.

          • Edward S Teddy S says:

            Greetings and Hello Master Culadasa,

            Thank you for your response and also thank you for teaching so many people meditation. Many of them are close friends.

            Based on my study of the Tibetan Mahayana tradition I disagree with you that agricultural karma as you have called it is an incorrect teaching. For two reasons your presentation is incorrect ,one is that it doesn't address the most subtle presentations on subject object relationship and mental imputation. Secondly it doesn't line up with quantums presentation which is more in line with the agricultural view than not.

            The Tibetan tradition would not negate the other Niyamas as you have called it in this article. They would include those. They would however take it a step further and go farther into the realm of mind, subject/object relationship, imputation, and mental labeling. This is why Madyamaka texts were debated,shred apart, and put back together by the Indian pundits. Thisi is also why so many commentaries and schools of thought developed around Lord Buddhas teachings on the middle way. Has Eric said below Lord Buddha did truly teach many different teachings on karma, selfness and impermanence and at times they do seem to contradict each-other.

            According to quantums presentation on reality just by observing something it changes the object. That implies that there are as many universes as there are mind streams and each one of them will see a different universe.

            There can be a collective agreement on the universe but "universe" is not something out there separate from our understanding of "universe". There is not substantial intrinsic universe that is carrying something of its own accord. Your presentation doesnt take into account the most subtle teaching on reality and subject object relationship from Lord Buddhas teachings. Im very sorry to say that this presentation falls quite short of it.

            The ideas that I have mentioned above in the laws of karma are not my ideas but from the Tibetan Texts. One thing I am in agreement with and the Tibetans would be to is that intention is the primary factor in a karma and that intention is where the bulk of our work is as practitioners is.

            I am curious as to what you think about quantum psychics presentation and how your system to could hold up to that.

            All the best
            Teddy

          • 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

      • Padma Kadag says:

        "Hinayana" is not problematic. Though an individual may purchase groceries for one's self, which in it's self is not problematic, and continues to do that their entire life, wouldn't we have a larger view if we were to purchase groceries for all of those in the store who could not afford them? The Mahayana offers that, included is the hinayana, buying for one's self before others. The buying or need for groceries is equivalent to the thought of renunciation(hinayana) and then the opening up of that is the buying for others before one's self. The hinayana is needed to open the Mahayana. No problems.

  6. Gabrielle says:

    This was helpful to read. Thank you!

  7. Mark says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! This was awesome!

  8. Padma Kadag says:

    “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.”…huh!? And Karma is what? Not Causes and Conditions? You explain nothing and end with a contradiction… very funny! Oh wait…it’s your “Modern Twist”.

    • Matthew says:

      Padma Kadag,

      There are various levels of causes and conditions, that's what the Buddha is talking about in terms of the niyamas. The "modern twist" is simply to imply that there are certain "emergent" qualities to these different levels (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emergentism). Thus, an understanding of the first level of causality, Utu Niyama, has its own set of causality – gases turn to liquids, tectonic plates shift, and planets orbit in predictable ways. The empirical study of this causal level has given us amazing abilities, such as the power to split the atom or land on the moon.

      But when we look at living organisms, they are more complex than just their physical and chemical constituents. For example, just knowing the chemical properties of a plant won’t tell you whether it is, say, a sunflower or a daisy. Living systems arrange, shift, and flow in a dynamic state of disequilibrium. The sum is greater than its parts. This strata of life is known as Bija Niyama, or biological causality.

      So what we see is that all of these levels are, on the one hand, completely interconnected and yet, at the same time, we can see that each level has its own set of unique properties, causes and conditions.

      I hope this helps.

      Matthew

  9. Padma Kadag says:

    "The irony is that this view of karma ends up undermining its original purpose of explaining an individual’s unique, personal history."…Yea..is it not the reason for Buddhism to tear down the hut of the mind (as you say, "unique personal history") in order to attain Wisdom, prajna? Your use of "unique personal history" is very telling.

    • Matthew says:

      Hi Padma Kadag, can you explain what you mean? I'm not sure I follow? What is it telling of? Thanks Matthew

      • Padma Kadag says:

        I find the use of the term you have chosen, "unique personal history", to be "telling" particularly in a discussion on Karma, because the word "unique" is describing the author's and other's personal history which by all accounts can only mean that "personal history" or your self (ego). Using "unique" glorifies ego as does your your original statement which sounds as if you u want to preserve ego. Buddhism is about acquiring wisdom not protecting self.

      • Padma Kadag says:

        Maybe I am misunderstanding the quote from your article, with "unique personal history", please explain the intent or meaning of the quote.

      • 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.”

  10. Shelly Hubman says:

    Thank you so much for your years of study and investigation, coupled with dedicated practice. They way you explain karma, with such clarity and insight, helps to make these valuable teachings understandable to the contemporary-contemplative and to seekers of spiritual depth. The standard “reap what you sow” interpretation of karma has often been understood in superficial ways that lend themselves to judgmentalness and to propping up an ego.

  11. Philip Chase says:

    The authors espouse a sensible interpretation of karma: the idea that our intentions determine the mental space we inhabit. Great article — well written and well considered. Thanks for sharing it.

  12. Brendan says:

    This is tremendously helpful! It seems like everyone has different ideas about karma, some of them metaphysical, many of them just nonsensical. It's refreshing and clarifying to hear karma described in mundane terms, and I really appreciate how they tie it together so interestingly (and convincingly) with modern science.

  13. Tucker says:

    So glad to see this article. The teaching on the 5 niyamas is one of the most amazingly modern of the Buddha's teachings, and it hardly ever gets talked about.

  14. The truth is the Buddha taught multiple explanations of every aspect of his teaching. On all important concepts (selflessness, meditation, emptiness, karma) he gave many, and often contradictory, teachings.

    So the part I’m curious about is why your link to the 5 niyamas goes to a page on Hindu yoga. Where does the italicized quote come from? Because that’s not from the Yoga Sutra. Nor is it from any Buddhist text that I recognize (although my training is in Tibetan and not Theravadan Buddhism).

    Thanks,

    Eric

    • Matthew says:

      Hi Eric

      We didn't put the link there. EJ did. Check out Jayava's post below. He can quibble all he wants about translations, but the niyamas are in the Pali commentaries, as he says himself, and they’re based on the suttas, which he also acknowledges.

      Matthew

    • Matthew says:

      Hi Eric

      I don't know why my previous response didn't go through. But basically I said, I didn't put that link to the 5 Niyamas… EJ did. If you look below, Jayarava discusses the Niyamans and their sources. He can quibble all he wants about translations, but the niyamas are in the Pali commentaries, as he says himself, and they’re based on the suttas, which he also acknowledges.

      Be well
      Matthew

  15. prof.Lal Bakhsh Jiskani says:

    The article is amazingly interesting n it sheds proper light on the term karma as given in lord Buddha’s philosophy n quite different from its popular meaning n purpose n the article is thought provoking n meabingful n it enlightens the readers.

  16. Peter Mörtl says:

    This is the worst explanations of “Karma” I have come across.

    The notion that we should not expect our deeds to give results because the world is “too complicated” and it might not work fast enough means that we are left with …. what exactly? Does it matter what we do or does it not? Does Karma create our reality or not?

    If your notion is true – that we are left with countless past deeds – then the suggestion to “not expect fast results of new deeds” is insane. To expect your deeds will create your reality too slow for you to matter ” is also a “karma” a “movement of your mind” a “mental seed” … and it too will become true – for you – as everything else you intent to do does.

    I disagree full heartily with your intention (that my deeds do not matter because they are too slow to ripen in a complicated world). It reminds me of a quote by a Course in Miracle Practitioner (Marianne Williamson):

    “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.

    We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?

    Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God.

    Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.

    We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone.

    And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

    Karma works …. it works fast … you can create what ever you want through “Enlightened Self Interest” (as His Holiness calls it) by giving to others first what you want and by then rejoicing in your own goodness which creates FAST Karma.

  17. Peter M says:

    "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
    It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.
    We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
    Actually, who are you not to be?
    You are a child of God.
    Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you.
    We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone.
    And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
    As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."
    Marianne Williamson

    Karma works. "Enlightened Self Interest" (HH the 14th Dalai Lama) works. Our deeds do create our world.

    Because it is true that the world is complicated and our past deeds are limitless the suggestion to not expect fast results of our goodness borders on insanity. "Not expecting results fast" is Karma too and that too becomes true … because Karma IS about our intentions and it is about what we do.

  18. Jayarava says:

    Not sure how your (uncredited) paraphrase of the niyāmas helps your argument – it’s not a twist *you* give them but one you have borrowed from one or other modern commentator. My friend Dhīvan has traced this idea back to Mrs Rhys Davids who first made it up in correspondence with ledi Sayadaw. But the view of them niyāmas has *nothing whatever* to do with the actual Buddhist texts that mention them. Nor does linking to a Yoga definition clarify anything since yogins use the word niyāma in quite a specific technical sense that is unrelated to the Buddhist usage.

    There are more apt sutta based teachings which deny that karma is responsible for everything. They are more convincing than this made up niyāmas stuff.

    In fact the niyāmas in Pāli have nothing to do with this argument. They are about showing that certain unseen processes: the mind (cittaniyāma), karma and miracles associated with the birth of a Buddha (dharmaniyāma) behave just like natural processes in that they produce appropriate effects like seeds (bījaniyāma) and the appropriate time like seasons (utuniyāma). If you’d like to check this and cannot read Pali, my draft translations are online here: http://www.jayarava.org/texts/the-five-Fold-niyam… As far as I know, with one exception, these are the only translations available in English. The one exception, by Ledi Sayadaw, is extremely unreliable and misleading. Only about 5 people in history ever seem to have bothered to check the Pali before writing about the five-fold niyāma (as it ought to be called): Mrs RD, Ledi Sayadaw, Narada Thera, Dhīvan, and me. As a result a good deal of rubbish has been written about them. Some of which is repeated here.

    • Matthew says:

      Hi Jayarava

      Thanks for the link and I look forward to reading your work. But if I understand you, your issue is not with the main point of the article – that not everything is our karma – and more to do with the sources, specifically the Niyamas, to back up such claim. It would be great if you would share those suttas.

      Thanks
      Matthew

    • Matthew says:

      Hi Jayarava,

      I also wanted to say, we, the authors, didn't place that link to the niyamas. EJ did.

      Matthew

    • Matthew says:

      Also, we did not put the link to the 5 Niyamas – EJ did.

      Matthew

  19. EWS says:

    I find this framework compelling because it feels more true to my experience of myself and the world. That said, this discussion is one of a framework or a model. Models like maps can be helpful and predictive but are metaphorical and limited. They aren't the "things themselves." Right? So for me I hold all of it lightly and ask 'what's most useful and true to me now?'

    And… question! If matter and energy are two sides of the same coin, then do our thoughts have both karmic consequences AND "physical" consequences? Do our intentions also impact what has been set out here as lower levels of causality? What we perceive as physical outer events happening to us?

    Thank you!!

  20. EWS says:

    Do these two different views of karma lead you to responding to the world differently? Behaving differently? Training differently? I'd love to know from anyone / everyone!!!

    • Culadasa says:

      EWS asks if these two different views of karma lead to different ways of responding.

      If you believe that it's your actions that matter, and their consequences come back to you in the form of good or bad fortune in the future, it may improve your behavior. But then, even your good acts will be selfish, motivated by the craving to attain personal benefits and avoid pain. The effect of this is to reinforce the ignorance and delusion that the Buddha taught as being at the root of craving, and by acting out of this craving, to further enslave oneself to craving in general. If, as the Buddha taught, craving is the real cause of suffering, you have assured yourself more suffering in the future. The psychological dynamic of craving causing suffering definitely trumps that of good acts bringing good fortune. This is the real-life experience of many people following this materialistic view of karma, and so they must take comfort in the prospect of future lives to make sense of the suffering they experience in this one. Notice how nicely this view of karma fits in with the belief underlying modern capitalism, that there is no such thing as truly altruistic behavior, and the only way to get people to do good things is through appealing to their self-interest.

      This view of karma may also make you less motivated to help others, or even yourself. After all, if the misfortunes that befall us are our just deserts for past misdeeds, then there's little point in trying to alter the circumstances that deliver that misfortune. Thus we praise those who climb out of the poverty or injustice they're born into, but make little effort to eliminate that poverty or injustice. Except perhaps in the form of some small act that we know is ultimately futile, but will surely yield us some personal reward, either now or in the future.

      On the other hand, if you believe that it's your intentions that matter, you will reflect mindfully on your reasons for thinking, speaking and acting the way you do. When you find yourself acting selfishly, you have a choice to act unselfishly instead. If you find yourself acting out of craving, especially in a way that will harm others, you have a choice not to act out of that craving, and try to replace desire and aversion with generosity, loving-kindness, compassion, patience, and understanding. Each time you do so, you transform who you are at your very core. You weaken the hold that craving and self-centered delusion have on you. As a person less subject to craving and self-centered delusion, you will suffer less regardless of what circumstances befall you. Not to mention all the good things that will befall you as a result of being known as a selfless, generous, and loving person. And if you practice the rest of the Buddhadharma in addition to intentionally undermining craving and delusion in daily life, you're on a very fast track to Awakening in this life.

      If you believe and practice the idea that karma is intention, you can demonstrate to yourself, and others, that human nature is not, in fact, inherently deluded, cruel, and selfish. You may even find yourself believing that the historical trend towards more humanitarian values, human rights, social justice, etc. are more than a meaningless fluke, and actually tell us something very important about our own nature. You may even come to believe it's worth living a life based in loving-kindness and compassion for its own sake, rather than for whatever comfort it may bring you and your immediate associates.

      What's been referred to above as agricultural karma is useful for creating a well-behaved, docile, and easily governed populace. The Buddha's transformed karma as intention is a powerful tool for personal transformation. Its practitioners, other than being committed to harmlessness and non-violence, are in no way guaranteed to be well-behaved, docile, or easily governed. I suspect we're far more likely to be revolutionaries.

      • 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.

  21. Edward S says:

    There is a new book out by His Holiness which makes presentations from the Pali tradition and the Sanskrit tradition. Might also be of interest for those wishing to know more about the various presentations on karma.

    http://www.amazon.com/Buddhism-One-Teacher-Many-T

  22. Alistair Holmes says:

    Thank you, Culadasa and Matthew, for posting this article.

    I have myself been exposed mostly to what you have phrased "the agricultural view of karma” over my years of Buddhist training, although I have begun over the past few years to question how literally to accept it and to seek a satisfactory and profound view of interdependence.

    Although you almost certainly didn’t intend your critique of the “agricultural” view of karma to be exhaustive, I'd like to share for discussion at least two other substantial possible problems with the view worthy of comment that i've been reflecting on:

    (i) the agricultural view seems to possess a spiritually materialist bent: the emphasis is on manipulating karmic laws to effect results such as more wealth, better physical health, a wonderful partner. But is the authentic spiritual life about trying to make our worldly life more comfortable, or to achieve control over our world? Or is it more along the lines presented by the authors of this article – of transforming the “mental space we inhabit” so we can more functionally able to experience and respond to what happens from moment to moment?

    (ii) It also seems to presuppose a “karmic bubble” whereby each being is dwelling in their own, unique and disconnected world of appearances dictated entirely by ripenings of their own individual karma. Even where there is interaction with others, what one sees in the other person and in the interaction is still entirely coming from each individual – it’s all each being’s karmic projections. It’s arguably a very depressing view of individual isolation and loneliness. How can one connect with any other? Further, it risks becoming a view of spiritual narcissism whereby it’s all about you – you, your karma and your karmic projections. It’s a view that arguably ends up reifying the very sense of self that the path is meant to lead the practitioner to realize is non-existent, and hence it’s arguably a path of further binding and suffering rather than of liberation and awakening.

    At the risk of an overly long comment, in terms of your specific critique of the “agricultural” view of karma:

    1) A Buddhist friend, when presented some time ago with what you call “the administrative nightmare”, conceded that we cannot identify which specific act has caused which specific result. However, he countered, quite compellingly I suggest, that that we don’t need to, and that it is sufficient to know the patterns of which kinds of seeds produce which kinds of results and thus commit to practising, for example, giving in order to become more wealthy in the future. Of course, that assumes that such karmic patterns exist immutably, but i wonder if focusing on patterns rather than seeking to identify which specific acts led to which specific result would indeed relieve us of the need to understand the “infinitely subtle, ineffable” workings of karma.

    2) In response to the critique that this view of karma presupposes an abiding self of the type that the Buddha denied, the Tibetan tradition, following the classical Indian masters such as Shantideva, acknowledges that the ‘self’ at the time of the committing of karma and the ‘self’ at the time of the ripening of the fruit are different. It asserts that a non self-existent ‘self’ that continues from lifetime to lifetime is nevertheless a very basis for the accumulation and ripening of karma over different time periods. I’m unqualified to assert whether that satisfactorily solves the issue, but at the least we can say that this very question is not overlooked in the Buddhist tradition.

    Thank you again, Culadasa and Matthew, for posting this article.

    • Matthew says:

      Alister

      I completely agree with your further critique of the agricultural view – spiritual materialism and the karmic bubble problems. I think these are very prominent pitfalls when we adopt an agricultural lens.

      In terms of your second set of points, I think I need a little more clarification on the first one, I'm just not sure I understand the difference between seeing patterns and specific acts. Is s/he saying, "well, it works good enough, most of the time"? For example, are they saying that most of the times when they've given money away they've received money in return?

      Your second point is interesting and I'm not qualified either to assess such great masters such as Shantideva. I will say this, however, it seems like it takes a lot of intellectual work to make it work. In a sense, that's what this article is critiquing… the kind of mental knots we find ourselves tied up in when we hold to an agricultural view…. the way we need to bend "reality" or our experience to make it fit our "ideas". You're also touching on another highly contentious issue which is also implied in the article – past lives. But that topic will have to wait for another article.

      Thank you so much for writing. Be well.

      Matthew

      • 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.

    • Edward S Teddy S says:

      Dear Alistair and Matthew,

      Unfortunately what it seems is that what your calling a spiritual bubble is really your lack of understanding of what is actually implied by the subtlest presentations on subject object interdependence. There is a big hole in your understanding there. I dont have the time to try and convince you otherwise of the arguments and Ill defer to a place where the information can be presented with greater clarity and from scriptural authority including His Holiness.

      Ive pasted a couple links that i hope you guys read over that will inform you more about this whole picture of mental imputation, karma, mind, mental continuum and emptiness.

      Mind here-
      1. http://www.berzinarchives.com/web/en/archives/sut

      2. http://www.berzinarchives.com/web/en/archives/sut

      Karma here. You can choose any of the subject topics to study –
      http://www.berzinarchives.com/cms/x/s/searchresul

      Emptiness here -http://www.berzinarchives.com/cms/x/s/searchresult.html?path=%2Fen%2F&__locale=en&query=emptiness&submit=Search

      Mental continuum here – http://www.berzinarchives.com/web/en/archives/sut

      Best of luck.

      Teddy

      This presentation falls dramatically short and what your calling

      • Alistair Holmes says:

        Hi Teddy,

        I certainly don't claim to have figured out correct worldview as I'm still very much a work-in-progress – of course!. However, those two concerns I presented above seem to me to be quite important and I'm yet to hear a satisfactory refutation of them by advocates of the "everything is my karma" worldview. If there is a valid refutation of my objections then I'd be pleased to hear it so I can advance my understanding and refine my view.

        I know you wrote that you don't have time to show me how i'm mistaken, but i'm reasonably familiar with Dr Berlin's website and I looked again at the specific links you gave and I don't see any content there that endorses the view that "everything is coming from my karma". Indeed, Dr Berzin makes statements that seem to conflict with the view that everything is coming from karma. For example, in his 'Introductory Lecture on Karma', he states:

        "When we speak about karma, karma is the basic explanation of how and why our experiences of happiness and unhappiness go up and down – that’s what karma is all about… [W]hat we experience in life is the result of not just one cause – the cause isn’t just one thing that we just did immediately before now or what we did eons ago. It’s the result of an enormous amount of causal factors and conditions… [W]hat it’s saying is that events don’t occur in isolation, that actually everything is interconnected. Just to use a very simple example, we wouldn’t all be here in this room listening to this lecture if the Spanish didn’t come to the Americas, would we? That is one cause for us being here. Like that, there are so many different causes, direct and indirect, that contribute to what we’re experiencing right now or at any moment.

        "Karma, however, is explaining the causes that are specifically connected with our own minds. But there are many other causes that contribute to what we experience – physical causes, for instance, the weather, and so on. Many things that affect us are coming not only from our own minds, but from the minds of others… Karma [is] about how we experience things and how our attitudes affect what we experience in life."

        I can quote similar statements from the Dalai Lama and also Geshe Tashi Tsering of Jamming House, London, who is the author of a series entitled, " Foundation of Buddhist Thought" which is promulgated through the FPMT, but won't include them now for the sake of brevity. Of course, it may be that such statements are "lower", technically incorrect, explanations for an audience that is not ready for a more subtly correct view, but how are we to ascertain which teaching is to be taken literally and which are to be interpreted without recourse to our own logical and meditative analysis?

        Personally, I have found it revealing to study the subtle differences between the tenets of the Mind-Only school and the Middle Way school. The "everything is your karma" view is arguably an implication of Mind-Only school tenets, yet Middle Way argues that Mind Only goes too far and enters the extreme of nihilism by over discounting the status of external objects and, in turn, the status of the valid basis of appearances. We may think that there is a linear progression from the Vaibashika/Abhidharma school to the Middle Way school in terms of subtle degrees of repudiation of self-existence, but according to the Middle Way, whereas Vaibashika and Sautrantika don't go far enough in terms of repudiating self-existence, the Mind Only school in some aspects of its tenets (but not all – e.g. Mind Only still holds that karmic seeds and the mechanisms, including the part of the consciousness in which the latent seeds are stored, have some nature of their own) goes too far, and thus the Middle Way school asserts that it has identified the middle path between the two extremes of reification and nihilism.

        • 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.

          Teddy

      • Matthew says:

        Hi Teddy

        Thanks for the links. I will check them out. And yes, I'm sure there's a more subtle, nuanced and profound presentation. Nevertheless, what we're pointing out are some of the very common pitfalls that happen because of the agricultural view of karma – the "spiritual bubble" problem is just one very common pitfall. So you might be right, we both lack the correct understanding. But I do not think we're alone in not understanding that deepest level. In other words, I think a lot of people are misunderstanding this deepest level and thus falling into all sorts of logical pitfalls. Thus, rather than sending us links, what would be beneficial is a succinct presentation that corrects our misunderstanding.

        Be well

        Matthew

  23. btr says:

    Thanks for the article guys…I sense that you had good intention in writing it (hence good results! :)) but I'm afraid that I agree with Edward S and Mr. Mortel. It concerns me deeply that you would suggest and possibly mislead people in thinking that the goal of doing good deeds is only "becoming a person who encounters these challenges with less grumpiness and greater ease." One of the most exciting things about what the Buddha taught is that we absolutely do not have to cope with the problems we see in our lives– that with an understanding of what has created them we can change them, now, in this lifetime, non-violently…happily. That does not just apply to personal problems…it applies to everything we see in the world– because the world I see is coming directly FROM me. Please do not encourage people to be copers. We don't need any more copers. I think that a person who has awoken -whether you want to call that person a Buddhist or a thinker or a radical or revolutionary- recognizes that everything in their reality is coming FROM them, and that there is basically no objective reality out there for them to interact with. Each person's reality comes from their mind. It would also be good in an article like this to acknowledge that in any given situation, there are as many realities as there are people there to experience the situation. Our experience of a wicked person can only be the result of our own wickedness— there is no "wicked" person 'out-there'. Show me any person you label wicked and I'll show you someone who loves them. Which judger is right?– The one who calls them wicked or the one who loves them? Both are right– each person experiences reality as they do because of the results of their own deeds. There is no inherently wicked person "out there". This is a deeper truth that is not easily explainable in a few paragraphs of a blog. Every person has to come to their own understanding of it personally.

    • Jeremy says:

      Hi Btr,

      The philosophical position you describe – "the world I see is coming directly FROM me… there is basically no objective reality out there for them to interact with… Our experience of a wicked person can only be the result of our own wickedness" – is called solipsism. It's basically the idea that our self is the only extant thing, and everything we see is a manifestation of our own mind. This position has potentially dangerous consequences. If, to use an example you gave, you think that others' wickedness you see is simply a reflexion of your own wickedness, this can lead to self-loathing. You can end up blaming yourself for others' deleterious behavior. (For instance, someone who is the victim of sexual abuse may blame themselves for generating the "evil" they experienced.) Alternatively, there is also the danger of developing what we might call a "God complex," in which we believe the world is our own creation, and that if we can just understand that well enough and manipulate it, we can avoid all pain and suffering – and maybe even do things like learn to fly and live forever.

      Now, that said, it is important to acknowledge that reality – in so far as we can perceive it – is mind created. In other words, there is something outside ourselves, but all we can ever know of it is through the mental representations our minds generate in response to the information that comes in through our senses. That is the true meaning of emptiness. That "something outside our minds," so to speak, obeys laws that go beyond the laws of our own internal cognition. The best that we humans have been able to describe it is in terms of physics, chemistry, and biology. Because of those physical laws, we can't fly, nor can we live forever. Nor, for that matter, can we manipulate the world as a whole to avoid all physical pain. But, as the article so eloquently puts it, we can change ourselves through the power of the dharma into people who meets pain and adversity without ever suffering. And that is why the dharma is so precious.

  24. BillMcM1776 says:

    "Probably one of the most popular misunderstandings about Buddhist Karma is the idea that everything that happens to us is our karma."
    While I deeply respect the good work of Culadasa and Matthew, their opening premise is not correct. Je Tsongkapa (1357-1419) was the founder of the Gelukpa school of Buddhism that His Holiness the Dalai Lama belongs to. He wrote a book called The Three Principal Paths. Pabongka Rinpoche, one of the foremost Gelukpa scholars of the early 20th century, wrote a commentary to that book. The commentary was translated by Khen Rinpoche Lobsang Tharchin, himself a lharampa geshe. A passage from that book about the laws of karma reads:

    "…the four principles of action which the Buddha enunciated:
    1) Actions are certain to produce similar consequences.
    2) The consequences are greater than the actions.
    3) One cannot meet a consequence if he has not
    committed an action.
    4) Once an action is committed, the consequence cannot be
    lost."

    The Tibetan Buddhists are quite clear that every action produces a result. The reasons for this are exquisitely set out in "The Principal Teachings of Buddhism" which can found here: http://www.mstp.us/Books/PrincipalTeachings.php .

    • 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

      Matthew

      • 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!

        • 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
          Matthew

      • 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?

        • 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.

          Matthew

  25. 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

    Matthew

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 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—

    • 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—

      • 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.

    • 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.

      • 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… 🙂

    • 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

  29. 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!

  30. @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.)

  31. 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.

  32. 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.

  33. 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.

  34. Jen says:

    *finally*
    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.

  35. 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. 

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

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