What Is Karma?

The Karma Series: What Is Karma? | Karma and Growth | Karma Doesn’t Explain Anything

Karma is one of the most misunderstood concepts in Buddhism. The misunderstandings are unfortunate because the principle of karma is crucially important for our understanding of why we practice and what happens when we practice. In this series, I will try to correct a number of these misconceptions. The first misconception on my list is the notion that karma means cause and effect.

Karma isn’t cause and effect

The confusion of karma with the law of cause and effect has two sources, cultural differences and translation difficulties.

When Western scholars and philosophers were first exposed to Buddhist thought, they naturally tried to fit Buddhist concepts into Western frameworks. Western thinking, particularly since the development of the scientific method, is largely reductionist and relies heavily on the notion of cause and effect: one thing acting on another to produce an effect. Scientific research seeks to trace the chain of causes that produce a given effect. Since karma apparently describes how the world and living beings comes to exist, it is often interpreted as a theory of causation and christened (irony intended) “the law of karma” (after other scientific laws such as the law of gravity).

The heavy handed application of Western thought structures to Eastern thought has often created serious impediments to accurate understanding. The application of Western grammatical concepts to the Tibetan language is one instance that I have run up against. In the case of karma, Western notions reinforced by naive Eastern explanations, have led to a host of problems. How does an action in the past cause a specific experience in the present without some kind of pre-determinism? If everything is pre-determined, how can we attain freedom from the cycle of existence?

When we look at karma directly without the distorting lens of Western notions of causality, we see more clearly. To do so, we first need to look at the language itself and clear up some translation points.

The full term for karma in Tibetan is las.rgyu.abras which in translation yields action-seed-result. The Tibetan language expresses abstract ideas by joining together two or more words that cover a range of experience. For instance, distance is expressed by joining together the words for near and far, size by joining together the words for large and small, and quantity by joining together little and many. What abstract idea do the words seed and result convey? They convey the idea of growth. So, karma describes the way actions grow from seeds into results.

The idea of growth is very different from the idea of cause and effect. When I push my foot down on the gas pedal, I cause my car to go faster. An intricate chain of linkages between the gas pedal and the rotating wheels of my car is responsible for the effect. At each stage one mechanical device acts on another to produce a precise effect, some movement in the quantity, direction, or speed of another mechanical element. The overall effect is that the wheels rotate faster and my car speeds up. The way that my action causes the car to go faster has nothing to do with growth.

Compare this chain of cause and effect to the growth of a tree. An oak tree starts with an acorn. An acorn is not a tree. The acorn, under the right conditions (we’ll come back to this point in future articles) starts to sprout. After a short time, the acorn is gone and a shoot with growing roots and a growing stem has formed. Bark, branches, and leaves form. Totally new features emerge at different stages. An oak tree consists of many different kinds of structures, all of which have grown from the original acorn.Karma describes growth, not causation. An acorn doesn’t cause an oak tree. It grows into an oak tree. Actions don’t cause our world of experience. They grow into our world of experience.

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