Karma Doesn't Explain Anything

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

This series of articles on karma is intended to clarify some of the misunderstandings and confusions surrounding the term. In this article, I turn attention to the roles that karma can play in spiritual practice.

As many of you know, I have a penchant for getting to the root of things. Off-hand comments or questions often point to deeper problems. In this case, the comment was, “How can you say that innocent children who have been slaughtered in a civil war must have been murderers in a previous lifetime — that’s outrageous!” What struck me was the sense of outrage, the same kind of outrage I’ve heard many people voice about the Catholic notion of original sin. I think it was James Joyce who said that the doctrine of original sin was inhumanely cruel. Is karma also inhumanely cruel?

In pursuing that question, I came to the conclusion that karma serves two very different functions: explanation and instruction.


What does karma explain? Supposedly, it explains why, in this life, we are the way we are and what place our present experience has in the scheme of things.

To see what you’ve done, look at what you are.
To see what you’ll be, look at your actions.

Let me elaborate on these two points.

First, why are we the way are? What forces determine what happens in our lives? Each of us is one among millions of people. We see a huge range in individual experience — in wealth, happiness, health, fortune, personalities, opportunities and outcomes. While we see that certain principles do operate (being honest usually elicits respect), we also see huge inequities and tragedies that defy logical explanation. Karma seemingly offers an explanation for these inequities by extending the time scale from this life to an infinity of lives in the past and future.

A second concern is the significance of our existence. In the end, everyone dies, even the most enlightened of spiritual masters. Karma, again, offers a world view that makes our every action in this life significant in the scheme of things: if we do good now, we will experience happiness in future lives. If we free ourselves from ignorance, we manifest in the world to help others.

How explanations function

We seek explanations when we are confronted by a mystery — “Why did that happen?” or “Why is this happening to me?” The function of an explanation is to remove mystery. Most of us, at some point in our lives, have looked up at a clear blue sky and asked, “Why is the sky blue?” There it is, as blue as can be, and we feel the mystery and something stirs in us, a curiosity, an opening.

The sky is blue because the chemical composition of the atmosphere is such that light of certain frequencies are absorbed or scattered and the result is a blue sky. No mystery.

But the explanation leaves us dead inside and we realize that we weren’t really looking for an explanation at all. The mystery drew and held our attention.

Explanations take the mystery out of life. They give the impression that everything makes sense to us. When things make sense, we stop looking.

Mystery makes many people uncomfortable. They seek explanations avoid dealing with such questions as “Why is my life the way it is?” or “What is the significance of my existence?” Explanation has, in my view, the opposite intention of spiritual practice. The former seeks to remove mystery, the latter to open to mystery and live in it.

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