Alex Lickerman M.D.

Happiness in this World

An Explanation of Karma

The unprovable and unfalsifiable explanation of karma

Posted Dec 14, 2009

Few concepts are as misunderstood or difficult to define as the concept of karma. Like love and happiness, it seems to mean something different to everyone, even as most would probably agree it has something to do with the principles of destiny, fate, predeterminism, and even reincarnation. If we define karma according to the philosophy of Nichiren Buddhism, however, and take the admittedly challenging step of accepting that it functions as a real phenomenon, it becomes apparent few principles are as important to understand correctly if we want to become happy.

As of this writing, I find myself still an unenlightened, common mortal---meaning, essentially, that my understanding, while clear, remains intellectual only, unsupported by any kind of genuine awakening to the principle of karma operating within my own life. So though what follows is logical, I can't honestly say I believe it's true. Yet.


At the most basic level, karma can be considered simply what happens to you. In this way, people variously attribute things like getting sick, meeting the love of one's life, getting into car accidents, and finding parking spots all to the workings of karma. But if our consideration of karma were to stop there, we'd also have to conclude we have little to no control over the events in our lives, that our destiny has already been constructed down to the last detail by external forces, and that free will is an illusion.

Certainly we may often feel that our lives operate this way, but even the most nihilistic of us have had experiences that refute this view---experiences in which we aimed at a goal, fought through obstacles, and achieved our objective through our own efforts. Though we'd be foolish to believe we can achieve complete control over what happens to us, we'd be equally foolish to believe we have no influence over it (even if only—to argue a ridiculous extreme—through the minute amount of gravitational force our bodies exert on all other bodies in the universe). If we accept that we do, in fact, have the power to influence things by our actions, much less by the mere fact of our existence, (even if only sometimes to an infinitesimal degree), then the notion that what happens to us (our karma) is rigidly fixed by an outside force—destiny or Fate or God—cannot be considered valid.


Buddhism, in fact, teaches exactly the opposite, that everything that happens to us is ultimately due to our own influence—whether intentional or not—and that coincidence is in reality an illusion.

How can this be so? According to Nichiren Buddhism, because of the operation of the law of cause and effect. Karma is a Sanskrit word whose literal meaning is "action," and action is indeed the common element around which all of karma's philosophical implications pivot. Shakyamuni Buddha (the original, historical Buddha who lived in India approximately 2500 years ago) is said to have remarked, "If a person commits an act of good or evil, he himself becomes the heir to that action. This is because that action never actually disappears." In other words, and according to the SGI website, "The latent force of both our good and bad actions remains in our lives...each act [remaining in] the present as a potential force or energy, influencing the course of one's existence from the point of that action forward. In this sense, rather than simply viewing karma as 'action,' it may be more appropriate to think of it as action plus that action's potential influence on one's life." In other words, all the effects in your life (what happens to you) are without exception determined by causes you yourself have made in the past---"causes" here defined as your thoughts, words, and deeds (listed in order of ascending impact).

As I argued in a previous post, Become A Force For Good, general causality is something everyone understands and believes, namely that every effect has a cause. We may not be able to identify what particular cause is responsible for a particular effect, but it's difficult, if not impossible, to conceive of an effect that has no cause.

Buddhism, however, takes this principle of general causality even farther. It denotes the principle of cause and effect as a universal law that governs not just the physical universe but our own lives as well. Essentially, it works like this: everything we say, think, and do serves as a cause that will at some time in the future, when circumstances are right, manifest an effect. In one sense, this seems obvious: if you get angry (cause) you might get punched (effect). But Buddhism takes this even farther, arguing that all the causes we make are recorded at some level in our lives as if they were transactions in a bank. Making a good cause would be like depositing money that can be withdrawn at some point in the future, while making a bad cause would be like borrowing money that at some point in the future will have to be repaid. So if, for example, you slander someone today, that might result in them slandering you tomorrow (if they hear about it)—or it might result in you breaking your leg.

This last possibility is extremely difficult to believe. To do so, we must first accept that all events in the universe occur as a result of a sublimely interrelated mosaic of causes and effects, like the running of an infinite number of cosmic Rube Goldberg machines, each individual cause leading to an effect, which itself becomes the cause of another effect, and so on, and so on, and so on, until years, decades, or even lifetimes later(!) a final result reaches us, an effect we ourselves experience whose arrival we could never, with our conscious perception, trace backwards in space and time all the way to its original cause. The idea that the universe works this way nearly outstrips the mind's ability to imagine, but is nevertheless, at least, possible in theory. In fact, more than that—when we examine the concept in light of our everyday experience of cause and effect, it's actually harder to rationalize the notion of coincidence.


To accept that somehow our slandering someone today could be the true cause of the broken leg we experience tomorrow, however, requires not just that we conceive of the universe as a cosmic Rube Goldberg machine—that is, not just that we accept the validity of the law of cause and effect—but that we accept the validity of the simultaneity of the law of cause and effect.

The idea that cause and effect come into being simultaneously is yet another incredibly difficult idea to believe (though not the most difficult idea to believe—that one's coming up). According to this principle, at the very moment you make a cause, its effect appears within your life immediately, not visibly but rather latently (hence the term latent effect), like a mouse trap being cocked into place, creating a fixed amount of potential energy that any number of things could set off—say, for example, a drunk driver. An inebriated swerve could easily become the external cause that transforms the potential energy of the latent effect we created by slandering someone into the manifest effect of a broken leg. That the potential energy of the latent effect need not be released in a form that seems directly related to its original cause (eg, finding ourselves on the receiving end of someone else's slanderous remarks) but could be released in a novel and seemingly unrelated form entirely like a broken leg, the way matter is converted into energy and energy into matter according to the laws of physics—is actually the most difficult idea to believe of all. In this example, most of us, believing in the general law of causality, would be tempted to say the drunk driver was the inherent, true cause of our broken leg, but we'd be wrong. The inherent, true cause was the action that set the mouse trap in the first place, our slander of another person. In this way, Buddhism argues, we are responsible for every effect (not just what happens to us, but even the experience of emotions like anxiety and depressioneverything) that occurs in our lives. Create a good cause and you enjoy a good effect. Create a bad cause and you suffer a bad effect.


The chain of causation that connects original causes (eg, slander) to their manifest effects (eg, a broken leg) is simply too sublime to trace from beginning to end, making it difficult, if not impossible, for us to believe such a chain even exists. In fact, according to Buddhist thought, it requires nothing short of a great awakening—enlightenment itself—for a person to perceive the workings of this law of cause and effect in his or her own life.

True acceptance of the notion that an effect is "engraved" in our lives at the very moment we make its cause may only be achievable by means of a great awakening, but one common phenomenon provides at least a metaphorical framework with which to imagine how this could actually work: traffic jams. A traffic jam is well known to persist at the site of an accident for hours after all evidence of the accident has been removed. With no visible evidence remaining of the original accident, anyone getting caught in a traffic jam at the site of it hours after it had been cleared might reasonably conclude (knowing of the accident from listening to the radio) that the accident's latent effect had been somehow "engraved" at the site. Yet if you click on the link above and read the article after finishing this one (it's long but well worth the read), it becomes clear there's actually a mechanism by which this "engraving" occurs. The way causes we make in our lives lead to various effects must also occur through some real mechanism---just one we can't perceive at a conscious level.


If we accept the possibility that we ourselves have made all the causes for all the effects we currently experience in our lives, does that then mean the woman who suffers abuse at the hands of her husband or boyfriend is to blame for it? Or even worse, deserves it? Or that a baby is responsible for having been born into poverty?

From the Buddhist perspective, we are indeed responsible, but importantly not to blame, for every effect we experience (blame accruing only if we intend to yield a particular effect at the moment we made the cause for it). For example, if you buy a train ticket intending to go to New York but mistakenly board a train for Los Angeles, your own action makes you responsible for arriving in Los Angeles but not to blame for it (as arriving in Los Angeles wasn't your conscious intention). Whether or not you deserved it isn't even a consideration. Through the inexorable workings of cause and effect, you received the effect of the cause you made. The law of cause and effect is impartial, impersonal, and strict, just like the law of gravity, requiring no higher power to make it run. It explains how bad things can happen to good people (everyone has made bad causes in the past, and each cause carries with it an effect that must at some point be experienced in the future). It also, most importantly, places the power to change our destiny firmly in our own hands: we can continually make better causes in the present that lead to better effects in the future, the best good cause, Nichiren Buddhism teaches, being to actively embrace the law of cause and effect itself by chanting its name, Nam-myoho-renge-kyo (another post in itself).


So why does any of this matter?

Because the operation of the law of cause and effect means we do have the power to determine what happens to us—or if not exactly what happens to us, whether what happens to us is good or bad—just not most effectively by using our will like a battering ram to bend circumstances and people into the shape we want. Rather, we can determine the degree of happiness or suffering in our lives by continuously attempting to reform our most deeply held beliefs that happen to be foolish and untrue. Only by constantly polishing our character in this way do we become better able to more consistently avoid making bad causes, to reduce the amount of "debt" we must pay and instead increase the amount of money (or fortune, if you will) we can "deposit" into our karmic bank account to be drawn upon when we need it in the future.

It sounds fantastic, I know. And yet to me also...attractive. I still don't know, or entirely believe, that the simultaneity of the law of cause and effect is real, but I want to be the one wholly responsible for everything in my life. Because if I am, if the power to create havoc in my life really does accrue only to me, then so does the power to create the opposite. Everything, in other words, is up to me. Everything.

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to explore Dr. Lickerman's home page, Happiness in this World.