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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Balances the universe

The karmic explanations of individual differences and what happens to us after death constitute an ordering principle in the universe. Good is rewarded, not necessarily tomorrow or the next life, but some time in the future. Bad is punished, again, not necessarily tomorrow or in this life, but some time in the future. The time frame may be vast, but the order is established: good actions lead to good experiences, bad actions to bad experiences.

Allows projections of human values on world of experience

We tend to project human values onto the universe. Several years ago, I taught a class on karma. I asked everyone what they thought karma was. Over 80% replied that they felt karma made the universe just. The idea was comforting. The desire for justice is a human desire. It means that the individual is recognized as an individual by the society he or she lives in. Karma is viewed as the universe’s recognition of us as individuals. The universe is just — everybody gets what they deserve.

Can be used to justify political/social systems

Once we accept the idea that karma ensures that the universe is a just place, the prevailing political system can use karma to “justify” the inequities that it produces. If you are born into a ruling family, you enjoy the results of the good you did in past lives. If you are born a slave, then your fate is the result of what you did in past lives. Your effort in this life is not to strive to be a ruler or king, but to work out your karma, whatever it is. Countless conquerors, kings. and warlords have, over the centuries, used karma to justify their actions. Countless others have taken the attitude “It’s their karma” to avoid helping others in need.

Rigidity in moral position

The acceptance of karmic explanations easily solidifies into a belief system. In this context, “belief” is an idea that we accept without verifying it through our own experience. Since beliefs are the underlying structure that tells us who we are and what our place in the world is, we resist very strongly (sometimes violently) any interpretation of events and experiences that bring them into question.

Beliefs about the world and about who we are form the basis for our determining what is morally right and wrong. When beliefs are firmly in place, we find it very difficult to accept actions that, however appropriate for the situation, violate our sense of right and wrong.

Example of innocent children

So we return to the children killed in the civil war. How do we explain this event if we believe in karma? Our only explanation is that, yes, these children did commit horrendous actions in past lives and the karma has now ripened.

For me that “explanation” is not only unconvincing but also unnecessary. The children died. They did nothing to “deserve” such deaths. The reason I look for an explanation is to avoid the mystery of their deaths, to protect myself from the pain it brings up in me, a pain that reminds me that I, too, am subject to tragic and arbitrary death, that my life could end at any time, and that I have no idea what the future holds for me. That is the mystery of life.

Ironically, when we probe deeper into classical treatments of karma, we find that the explanation karma appears to offer isn’t much of an explanation. Traditionally, only a fully awakened being (a buddha) can see exactly how an action develops into a result. Karma, itself, is a mystery.

I feel that karma as explanation adds very little to our lives. It lulls us into the belief that there is an order to the universe, it allows us to project a universe that we would like to exist, it can be used to justify horrific inequities and rigid moral positions and in the end only replaces one mystery with another.

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Karma as instruction, however, is a different story. Karma as instruction is very simple: how we experience our world depends on our actions; pay attention to our actions. The couplet I quoted earlier takes on a new meaning:

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

Verifiable through our own experience

When we look at what we are now, how we act, how we react, how we view the world, how we view others, we are, in effect, looking at the results of actions that have been motivated by habituated patterns. When we look at our habituated patterns carefully, we see how they are self-reinforcing and lead to the same circumstances again and again. An American version of this idea is:

If you do what you always did, you’ll get what you always got.

Karma as instruction means to observe our actions and appreciate how consequential each action is in reinforcing or dismantling an habituated pattern.

Evokes reliance on natural intelligence rather than set rules

When we look closely at life, we see that we can’t always rely on a set of rules to determine right and wrong. For every rule we can think of a situation when the appropriate action is contrary to the rule. Instead, we must rely on our natural intelligence. We have to show up in our life, see what is happening, make a decision to serve what is true and accept the results.

Brings us into the mystery

When we bring our attention to bear in a situation and act, we step into the mystery: the point where we are at the limit of our ability in attention and we don’t know whether we are in pattern or presence. We know only from the result whether we acted out of habituated pattern or out of direct awareness. If the situation blows up in our face, we have to pay. We see our part in it if, and only if, we have brought all our attention to our action. We learn where we were weak, blind, stupid or out of touch. There is no easy way to learn and I view any lesson as cheap if it doesn’t cost us our ability to make further efforts in waking up.

Less rigid

As we work with attention, we become less rigid. Each situation has to be taken on its own merits. We become increasingly clearer about the nature and effects of habituated patterns, the differences between habituation and presence and the efforts presence requires. We don’t need beliefs, we don’t need comforting, we don’t need explanations.

Each situation is a mystery. Can we be present in the mystery?

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


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