What Is Karma?

We Write Our Destiny 

It is essential to understand karma as a foundation for our behavior, for our dharma practice, and for the quality of our lives as a whole.  

The Sanskrit word karma means action. This refers to intentional physical, verbal, or mental actions. Karma is directly related to our intention or motivation while doing an action.  

Very simply, we receive what we give; we harvest exactly what we plant. Our actions, whether they are positive or negative, virtuous or non-virtuous, leave imprints or seeds in our minds, and these imprints ripen into our life experiences when the appropriate conditions come together.  

Karma is the universal law of cause and effect. The seeds of our actions continue with us from one lifetime to the next and do not get lost. Our relationship to karma is very simple—we are the actual product of our karma. We are the product of every thought, feeling, word, and action from our past and we will be the product of our karma in the future as well.  

Life is a seamless continuum, uninterruptedly weaved together with the threads of our karma; our volitional (intentional) actions. Whether it is good or bad, our karma follows us everywhere, in this life and the next.  

If we are compassionate, wise, honest, and skillful, we create positive and harmonious circumstances in this and future lives. Committing cruel, dishonest, and other unskillful actions of body, speech, and mind, we will certainly not escape the consequences of these deeds, either in this life or in the future.  

Whatever happiness and good fortune we experience in our lives comes from our own positive actions. Our problems and conflicts also arise from our own negative and destructive actions. Karma is our only true property—for better or worse, it follows us everywhere. Therefore, the Law of Karma teaches that responsibility for unskillful actions is born by the person who commits them. Again, karma is our only true property.  

It can be confusing when we see cruel people in positions of great power, wealthy people who are dishonest or selfish, or very kind people who have bad things happen to them or who die young. Seeing this, we may certainly wonder about the Law of Karma.  

Our largest obstacle to understanding or even believing in karma may be the factor of time. Most often, the results of our actions will show up after a delay of time. As ordinary human beings, who have not developed the omniscient eye of wisdom, we cannot see into past lives. Thus, it is difficult to discern which action caused which result. We must realize that we are only looking at a very small period of time in this one life. Many of the experiences we have in this life are the inevitable results of actions done in previous lives. In addition, the seeds of our actions in this life will ripen in future lives.  

The following contemplations were offered by the Buddha in the Upajjhatthana Sutta: “I am the owner of my actions (karma), heir to my actions, born from my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my judge. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, that I will inherit.”

Source: Used with permission from Neil Cohen at Naljor Prison Dharma Service, PO Box 1177, Mount Shasta CA 96067.

Photo Credit: Intellimon Ltd.