Turning Straw Into Gold

Life through a Buddhist lens

What Is Karma and Why Should it Matter to Us?

Karma is not punishment for past actions. It's the key to forming our character.

Karma has become a controversial subject. Because I’ve written a book on chronic pain and illness, I hear from a lot of people who want to know why they’re struggling with their health when others are not. Many of them think their poor health is karmic retribution for some past bad action, and that they’ve become sick because they have to work off this “bad karma.” They see karma as a kind of external justice system where they’re doomed to suffer based on some bad act they can’t even remember.

With sincere respect for other people’s views, I don’t believe this is consistent with what the Buddha taught. Plain and simple, in Buddhist psychology, karma is about the nature of our intentions—our intentions at this very moment. The literal translation of karma from Sanskrit is “action,” but the Buddha often said that karma means “intention”:

Intention, I tell you, is karma. Intending, one does karma by way of body, speech, and intellect. (AN 6.63)

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To understand what the Buddha meant, think of our actions as having two components: (1) our “bare behavior” and (2) our intention behind that behavior. (The word “action” would include physical action, speech, and thoughts—the equivalent of “body, speech, and intellect” in the above quotation from the Buddha.) What matters to forming our character is not the “bare behavior” that makes up our action but our intention in engaging in that action. And, as the Buddha said: intention is karma.

Consider the physical action of wielding a knife. The bare behavior = wielding a knife. But the intention behind that action could be to perform life-saving surgery or it could be to stab someone in anger or to steal from him. The Buddha identified six intentions that are the motivating force behind our actions:

  • good-will (or kindness)
  • compassion
  • generosity
  • ill-will (or anger)
  • cruelty
  • greed

Notice how the first three intentions mirror the last three: good-will/ill-will; compassion/cruelty; generosity/greed.

Actions that are based on the first three intentions are non-harmful to ourselves and others and result in relieving suffering. The intention of the surgeon who wields a knife in order to save a life is one of good-will, and perhaps even compassion and generosity.

In contrast, actions that are based on the last three intentions are harmful. The intention of the person who wields a knife in anger or in order to steal from another is one of ill-will or greed and intensifies suffering in this world.

The same analysis that applies to the physical act of wielding a knife applies to speech. If a man yells at someone, “Don’t move!” that’s his “bare behavior.” But his intention could be based on good-will (trying to stop the person from stepping in front of a moving car) or it could be based on ill-will (the words “don’t move” being spoken with a gun pressed against the other person’s back).

The same analysis applies to thoughts. If we’re thinking about the homeless, that’s the bare content of our thoughts. But our intention behind that thought could be compassionate (hoping they find a place to stay warm in the winter) or it could be cruel (hoping they get frostbite in the cold).

Planting behavioral seeds that form our character

Karma is crucial to our development as wise, caring, and loving human beings because, if we act out of a non-harmful intention, we predispose ourselves to act that way again. In other words, we plant a behavioral seed. We begin to form a habit. Conversely, if we act out of a harmful intention, we predispose ourselves to act that way again, making it more likely that the next time our behavior will be harmful.

Here's what the Buddha said on this subject:

Whatever a person frequently thinks and ponders upon, that becomes the inclination of his mind…If a person’s thinking is frequently imbued with ill-will… his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with ill-will… (MN19)

The key word in that quotation is “inclination.” Each time our intention is one of ill-will, our inclination to respond with ill-will is strengthened. In other words, we’re more likely to act out of ill-will in the future. Conversely, each time our intention is to be kind, our inclination to respond with kindness is strengthened. We’re, in effect, learning how to be kind and so we’re more likely to be kind in the future. The same analysis applies to the other four intentions.

And so, by responding with kindness, compassion, and generosity, we are turning ourselves into a person who is kind, compassionate, and generous. We are forming our character. This, in turn, has a positive effect on the world around us. (And of course, the converse is true, should we respond to the world with ill-will, cruelty, and greed.)

The key to learning to incline ourselves toward non-harmful intentions is to reflect on whether our proposed speech or action will intensify suffering for ourselves and others or will ease it. Practicing mindfulness helps because it makes us more aware of our reactive tendencies. Then, instead of acting impulsively out of habit, we’re better able to examine our intentions before we act.

The implications of this can be life-changing. It means that we have the ability to change ourselves no matter how ingrained our habits are. As the Buddha said, “Intending, one does karma…” Thus, with the intention not to harm, we “do” karma, meaning that the person we become is kind, compassionate, and generous.

Karma is a profound teaching, one worthy of our careful attention.

Postscript: Speaking personally, I believe I’m sick because I’m in a body and bodies get sick and injured and old. That’s the essence of the Buddha’s first noble truth.

[For an example of karma in action, see my piece, "What if You Remembered Every Single Day of Your Life—in Detail?"]

You might also like "4 Qualities of Mind that Alleviate Suffering."

© 2012 Toni Bernhard www.tonibernhard.com

Thank you for reading my work. My most recent book is titled How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.

I'm also the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers

Using the envelope icon, you can email this piece to others. You can also subscribe to my blog (see the choices below my picture). I’m active on FacebookPinterest, and (to a lesser extent) Twitter.

Toni Bernhard, J.D., is a former law professor at University of California at Davis. She wrote the award-winning How to Be Sick and, recently, How to Wake Up.

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