What’s karma got to do with it?

This morning I felt mildly irritated at an “official” person because they have a different idea about something than I do, and naturally that means their idea is daft, but they are the ones in charge. Sound familiar? (I know it’s not just me).

Angry Birds
Blame the right thing!

People play Angry Birds, so they tell me, because of the fun they have in beating each level. When two fantastically bright Millenials admitted to playing Angry Birds for two whole hours in one sitting — catapulting the poor birds at the long-suffering pigs or monkeys with a swipe of their finger — this was the only reason they could give me, even though I tried for at least half an hour to squeeze more psychology out of them. I have unhelpful habits of my own, but I confess I don’t really get the attraction (should I say mass addiction) of video games like Angry Birds. It was so clearly pre-programmed by nerds in an office who are having a laugh at your behalf and rubbing their hands in glee at the money 200 million people have purportedly parted with to “beat” a machine.

But this morning I actually got a glimpse of what my friends were saying. I’m not a fan of negative minds or so-called delusions, but I do find small ones quite helpful, as you can immediately look at your mind and see what you’re doing, where you’re focusing, and how it feels. And I have grown to enjoy the challenge of overcoming my negative minds with their opponents, beating them at each level, starting from the big and working your way up/down to the most subtle.

A couple of people recently asked me to do an article on karma. It is a vast subject and covered beautifully in my teacher’s books, but I’ll say how I smashed this morning’s particular monkey/pig by remembering the teachings on karma.

When irritation arose, I blamed it on its source… that b****y annoying person. I externalized it and as a result I felt powerless. If we hold the source of our aversion to be something out there, independent of the mind, there is precious little we can do other than get more defensive and angry as we try to push that seemingly harmful object away from us. (Alternatively, I could work for years to get into a position of power and then fire them, but that doesn’t seem quite practical either.)

It is always more enjoyable and peaceful to be centered in the heart-mind, feeling connected to everyone and everything, than to be adrift and cut off, relating to an apparently inherently existent world outside our mind. But delusions force us to live dualistically, sensing an unsettling gulf between us and the world about us – e.g. I am here and you, annoying person, are over there. This gulf is a figment of our ignorance and yawns wider when our delusions are strong.

Where does the world come from?

Luckily, the actual source of the irritation is nothing outside our mind. We can see from Buddha’s teachings that the world we experience depends on the world we are paying attention to or focusing on. There is no world other than the world we experience. No need to take Buddha’s word for it — try to inhabit, or even point to, a world outside of your experience of it!

The world we create for ourselves also depends entirely on our mind. If the only world we inhabit is the world we experience, and experience is mind, the causes of our world must also lie within our mind.

Specifically the world we live in depends on our intentions, or mental actions. “Karma” is the Sanskrit word for “action”, referring to mental actions. Karma generally speaking is the mental, internal law of cause and effect, which is as infallible as the physical, external law of cause and effect, such as oak trees arising from acorns and chickens arising from eggs — or is it the other way round?! Either way, everything must arise from something in the same continuum as itself, so an apple tree cannot arise from an unrelated peach seed, for example, as Master Oogway pointed out to Master Shifu, nor mental experience arise from a physical cause.

Every time we intentionally do something, we create the cause for something to ripen for us in the future, sowing a karmic “seed” in the soil of our mind. Mental intentions are those seeds, experience is their effect. Positive actions sow the seeds for positive experiences; negative actions sow the seeds for suffering experiences. Seeds take time to ripen, but what we put into the world is what, sooner or later, we get out of it.

Mladic would never have escaped

We cannot escape our negative karma unless we purify it. I read a story in the press today about the fugitive Gen. Ratko Mladic who has now finally been delivered to the Hague. Even without being tried for the Srebrenica massacre and other crimes against humanity, he will reap their ghastly results sooner or later in this or future lives. It seems to me that his bad karma already began to ripen when his beloved daughter Ana allegedly shot herself with his favorite gun because she was so distressed by his atrocities. He was granted permission to visit her grave before he was exiled. He has had strokes, heart attacks and cancer, but that loss must hurt him more than anything else.

How to gain more conviction in karma

There is no world independent of our mind. The world we experience depends on our current states of mind — if our mind is peaceful, the world seems like a pleasant place; if dark, we live in a dark world. As mentioned, the world we experience also depends on our previous thoughts and actions.

My teacher Geshe Kelsang advises that to gain more conviction in how we create our world with our intentions or karma, it is most helpful to consider how things do not exist from their own side but are projections of our mind. They are rather like a movie. We know a movie on a cinema screen is not out there coming at me, as it appears to be, but is projected by a projector. Similarly, the world appears to be out there coming at me, but it is in fact projected by my mind.

If my world is merely a projection of my mind, with no existence “out there” from its own side, then why does it appear in one way and not another? How do we become involved in one movie and not another?

How the world appears depends on which of my karmic potentials are ripening; these are rather like the movie reel being run through the projector. For this reason, everything is said to be mere karmic appearance of mind.

When we dream, where do all those appearances come from? They come from karmic seeds planted in our mind; where else could they come from? We experience a dream world that is projected by our own karma. Our waking world is also projected by our karma.

Looking in the mirror

So, going back to this morning… I thought about these things and how the only reason I was irritated was because I had irritated someone else in the past. If you look in a mirror and don’t like what you see, what do you do? Do you get out a paper towel and some Windex and try and rub that dirt away? Or do you realize it is just a reflection and use the mirror to clean your face instead? In the same way, if I don’t like what is appearing to my mind do I tire myself out by fixing the person out there with frustrating results? Or do I purify the causes for unpleasant appearances and make sure not to create more karmic causes for the things I don’t like?

If you don’t like a movie, change the movie reel.

Believing in karma is said to be like looking in a mirror that shows us what to abandon and what to practice. If you’re a Buddhist, you may think you believe in karma, yet the proof is in the pudding – if we do believe it we will want to engage in positive actions and abandon negative ones. We also won’t keep blaming the wrong things for our suffering or chasing the wrong things for our happiness — fiddling with the projected rather than the projector. As Geshe Kelsang says in Modern Buddhism (now available as a free eBook!).

“We should judge whether or not we believe that the main cause of suffering is our non-virtuous actions and the main cause of happiness is our virtuous actions. If we do not believe this, we will never apply effort to accumulating virtuous actions, or merit, and we will never purify our non-virtuous actions, and because of this we will experience suffering and difficulties continually, in life after life without end.”

The driver’s seat

Observing the natural law of karma puts us in the driver’s seat of our own destiny. If we don’t know about karma, we can’t do much about our future. Even if we try day in and day out to shape our world, we will rarely receive the results we wish for, because we are putting all our energy into creating external causes whilst ignoring the internal and actual causes of our experiences.

Buddha said that until we have gained a realization of ultimate truth, emptiness, observing karma is the most important thing for us to do in the pursuit of happiness and freedom. Why? Because karma entirely shapes what happens to us and how we experience life. If we want to be a conscious architect of our reality, choosing our own experiences, we need to fall in with this natural law. If we do not, we remain stuck and powerless; and, however hard we try to change our future, it never goes the way we want it to. With the wisdom understanding karma, we seize control and change our karma as we like. Without it, we are to all intents and purposes pre-determined by our karma. Buddhists don’t believe in fate, but if we blindly ignore the law of internal cause and effect, it looks like we are dooming ourselves to a future beyond our control!

I look forward to your comments, and please share this article if it’s helpful.

Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

27 thoughts on “What’s karma got to do with it?”

  1. My favorite quote from Viktor Frankl continually helps me be mindful of the power of karma and how to work with it: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

  2. Love the bit about cleaning the mirror mistakenly thinking we are cleaning our face – very helpful analogy Thank you x

  3. The breathtaking amount of lies, hatred, and misinformation in the US election caused me to bring out this article and read it again. Whatever I did to plant the seeds in my mind that caused this churning craziness to appear, I am sorry! Thanks for the wisdom!

    1. That is too kind, but thank you anyway 🙂 I like being able to share what i’ve learned from my incredibly kind and patient teacher.

  4. What a wonderful article, Luna! Thank you. I especially like your spin on the video games. I have feelings similar to yours about video games. It has bothered me that Angry Birds has become a hugely popular “enjoyment.” I like your spin about seeing the battle against delusions in the way that some people approach video games. That will stick in my mind–and when I see others playing with focus and joy, I will think of the focus and joy with which I wish to recognize, reduce, and abandon my delusions. I want to reach the very top level–enlightenment–for the benefit of others.

    I love teachings on karma. The law of karma makes so much sense to me and is very freeing. With that understanding of karma, I can literally change my life, benefiting myself and others. 🙂

    1. As video games are a multi-billion dollar industry, it’s good to get some teachings out of them 🙂

      So true what you say ~ with an understanding of karma you can literally change your life (as opposed to merely tinkering with it.)

  5. This question reminds me of when I was a little girl. I had 3 imaginary monsters that no one else could see. My mom had to put out a plate for them, they bathed with me, and I would get really upset if anyone “sat” on them. To me they were …as real as any other living being. They were my friends and I was never alone. I could not understand though, why no one else saw them. It is still like that today. I see things as solid and causing problems for me, but someone else does not see them, or sees them as a source of happiness. Go figure!

  6. Thanks Luna i really like this article. Especially today i was talking with two of my sons. They don´t believe in karma… so it hard sometimes… i look and hear how they think, and their wishes to take revenge against others. They believe that if i love them i should do the same if someone hurts them in the future.

    Well i think of course i had created this experience with my family… so i know i need to purify and pray for them… and love them and try to be as wise as i can. Put them some examples and telling stories, that may help them to understand.

    It is a big part of the way out of samsara to have the wisdom to understand karma as you said.

    1. Dear Maria, how old are your sons? In any event, you seem to have addressed your own concerns well — purify, pray, love them, give them wise advice and examples they can accept — I guess you can do that whatever age they are 🙂

      1. Luna my sons are 12, 16, 21 and 23 ..they grow up like Catholics… and it has been a little bit hard to have their respect for my decision to become Buddhist. So far now the ocean is calm. I just try to teach them responsibility on their decisions. but i find difficult to deal with all the erroneous beliefs. They like going to a bull fighters, and box encounters, and fishing. On one thing i feel happy now, they don´t kill insects any more… that is a victory on my mind…i just pray they can find Buddha some day… 🙂

  7. mmm… well written article and very pertinent to my situation. Thank you, very very helpful.

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about internal and external problems, trying to identify between the two and wondering whether we should only apply internal solutions to internal problems, and external solutions to external problems. It seems we can get a bit mixed up, thinking that we should only ever apply internal solutions to ANY problem- and this seems correct when we consider that all things are karmic projections of mind, with no existence outside of the mind…

    However, even our teacher himself has encouraged us to act in external ways to solve external problems (as well as reacting with internal solutions such as patience, prayer etc) and I’m wondering if you can help me find the balanced view please. Basically, yes, I get frustrated when I disagree with actions taken by those in power but, frustration aside, sometimes I still think there are valid reasons to disagree (ie, the action seems to be causing harm to others in some way) I am thinking more and more that the balanced response is to:

    pacify the internal problem of frustration with a solution such as an understanding of karma and patience THEN
    if the problem still appears go on to apply an external solution such as outwardly tackling the issue (of course without any grasping at results!!! 😉

    Am I wandering up the wrong path?!

    Thank you kindly!

    1. I think you are striding up the right path! I agree with you.

      Bodhisattvas have commitments to help others practically, especially as aspects of the perfections of giving, moral discipline and patience. We have to be kind, not ignore the world. We can see this from many of the downfalls of the Bodhisattva vows and the commitments and precepts of training the mind.

      Our main concern is training the mind because we know that this will help the most effectively and far-reachingly; but helping others practically with a good motivation is good karma. We need it too! Solving outer problems is good karma. Being kind is good karma. Resolving disputes is good karma. Helping people who are suffering is good karma. And so on.

      In the example I use in the article, there is nothing stopping me from voicing my disagreement with the idea — without grasping or attachment, as you say. But with an understanding of karma and emptiness, the context is very different.

      Anyone else care to comment on this important question?

      1. This brings up a discussion we are having in our household about what would a Buddha do. Would a Buddha ever raise his/her voice toward an external situation? For instance, if a teacher in a classroom is habitually and continually speaking in a negative manner, would a Buddha shout “Stop” to wake that teacher up and snap him/her out of their negative state? With no emotion then explain that the negative speech is not helping the students? Understood that the Buddha would not become attached to the outcome and/or response by the teacher. Or would the Buddha remain silent, observe, and think to him/herself “may you be happy, may you be free from suffering’ and let it go?

  8. ‘Everything must arise from something in the same continuum as itself’ – yes I like this package of wisdom Luna. That’s worth thinking about! Thanks for the article x

  9. Thank you for this article, it is very inspiring. I particularly liked the mirror anology, it really makes a lot of sense. I’ll try to think of this next time I’m getting annoyed with someone!

  10. The karma we create today may or may not ripen in this lifetime but it will most certainly ripen in future lives. Planting virtuous seeds in this life will ensure that virtuous karma ripens in our next lives. It really is such an easy concept. As humans, we either don’t believe it or we are so wrapped up in our samsaric lives that we don’t realize what we are creating. We have the capability of creating our existence and if we think of ourselves as a creative person, why not create a peaceful, happy existence to carry us through this life and all our future lives.

    1. I like this: “if we think of ourselves as a creative person”… the teachings on karma really are the opposite of fatalistic. Thanks.

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