Western Buddhist Review

Two Meanings of Karma

Posted by dhivan thomas jones on Sat, 8 February, 2014 - 19:33
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dhivan thomas jones
This is another of my ‘editor’s opinions’ column - my aim being to make a distinction that is helpful for Buddhists trying to understand what karma means and to what extent they go along with everything they hear about it.


The law of karma is a fundamental principle of the Buddhist worldview. In brief, karma refers to the idea that intentional actions have consequences for the agent, in this life and in future lives; in fact, it is karma that leads to rebirth. Buddhists understand the law of karma as another manifestation of dependent arising (paṭicca-samuppāda), the law of cause and effect, whereby everything that exists arises due to specific conditions. In this sense, the law of karma is a sort of natural law, so that actions are naturally followed by consequences, not as the result of divine judgement. But they will follow: the Buddha emphasised that actions lead inevitably to appropriate consequences:

Not in the sky, nor in the midst of the sea,
Nor by hiding in a mountain cave:
No place on earth is to be found
Where one might escape one’s wicked deeds.[i]

The inevitability of karmic consequences is a large part of the way that traditional Buddhism has presented its ethical teachings. Evil actions, like killing, stealing, lying and so on, are bad karmas and will lead to rebirth in an unpleasant human situation or in hell. Good actions, on the other hand, such as generosity (especially giving to Buddhist monks), makes merit and leads to good rebirth in a pleasant human situation or in heaven. Western Buddhists, while aware of the traditional teachings on karma, are generally more inclined to understand the law of karma in a psychological sense, as a reminder that good actions will produce pleasant experienced consequences in this life, and that bad actions will lead to unhappiness. My contention in this article is that in fact we should understand that ‘karma’ here is being used in two ways, and has two quite distinct meanings, which traditional Buddhists have not necessarily noticed, but which is important for western Buddhism.

I will call the two meanings of karma universal and psychological. When western Buddhists talk about the law of karma, they often have in mind only one meaning of the term, and that is the psychological meaning of karma. In its psychological meaning, the law of karma in Buddhism amounts to this: intentional actions of body, speech and mind have psychological consequences for the agent, such that good actions bring positive experiences in their train, and bad actions bring negative experiences. For instance, if I make a habit of going to the monastery and giving food and money to the monks and nuns, then this generosity has certain consequences: I feel happier, because my concern has been habitually directed beyond myself; I feel inspired, because my giving to the monks has brought me into contact with Dharma-practitioners; I feel my life is more meaningful, because my generosity has brought me into connection with the sangha in a general sense. Conversely, if I make a habit of fiddling my tax-return and stealing packets of coffee from work, then there will be certain consequences: I feel unhappier, because of the edge of anxiety that HMRC will catch up with me, or the kitchen manager at work will notice my theft; I feel more anxious, as I need to be careful who I am honest with, especially at work; I feel my life is a struggle, because I’m not able to relax into every moment with a good conscience.

The psychological meaning of the law of karma is extremely important for understanding how practising ethics has good consequences and leads to a happier, more integrated sense of self. This is the best basis for further progress on the Buddhist path. As an aside at this point, it is worth noticing that Buddhist ethics is based on the axiom that ‘actions have consequences’, but a good action is one that has good consquences for everyone, not just for oneself. The law of karma follows from the ethical axiom, but the psychological consequences for onself should not be the only considersation for our actions. But perhaps for a lot of us the promise of greater happiness acts as a prompt to remember to be good.

However, when traditional Buddhists talk about the law of karma, they usually have in mind something different to the psychological meaning of karma, which I will call the universal meaning of karma. In this more traditional meaning, the law of karma amounts to a theory about universal moral justice: intentional actions of body, speech and mind will have felt consequences in this life, or, more likely, in future lives. According to the universal law of karma, if I make a habit of going to the monastery and giving food and money to the monks and nuns, then such generous acts create merit, which is something like a positive balance on a cosmic balance-sheet, and which, after I have died, will come to fruition in my having a pleasant rebirth, perhaps in a well-off family, perhaps in a Buddhist country, or perhaps in a heavenly realm. Conversely, if I fiddle my taxes and steal the coffee, then such acts of taking the not-given will create demerit, which is something like a negative weight on the cosmic balance-sheet, which, after I have died, will have the result of putting me into a less pleasant rebirth, perhaps in a family of thieves, or among tax-collectors or coffee-growers, or perhaps in a hell-realm.

The universal law of karma is part of Buddhist cosmology; beings move between the various realms of existence – human, divine, hellish, animal – as a result of their karma. Due to universal impermanence, all beings arise and pass away continuously, and the effects of both good and bad actions only last for a certain period of time before they are exhausted. Hence the gods may fall and the inhabitants of hell may find their way back into the daylight, all through the law of karma. This universal karma is a system of cosmic justice, whereby moral acts never fade into oblivion, but register in the fabric of reality, their moral quality conserved until the very universe rewards and punishes good- and evil-doers.

My thought is that the Buddhist tradition has never distinguished these two meanings of the law of karma, the universal and the psychological. I think that the reason is that the universal idea of karma has its origin in ancient Indian religious and philosophical thought, and was not originally a psychological doctrine. In the Brahmanical religion of before the Buddha’s time, karma meant ritual action. For instance, a son might perform karmas at the funeral of his father, to ensure the deceased person’s passage to the world of the ancestors. Such karmas involved placing ritual items in the ritual fire, and it was believed that correctly performed ritual karma effected the nature of the universe. Around the time of the Buddha, the Jains formulated a new teaching about karma. For them, karma was a kind of substance that clung to one’s soul and kept one in conditioned existence and transmigration. Good karmas were purer than bad karmas but better than both was no karma. Again the effect of karma was inherent in the nature of the universe, but now the effect was individualised and ethical. Then the Buddha gave this individualised and ethicised idea of karma a psychological turn, so that the most important kind of karma was mental intention, and it was not a kind of substance but something more abstract.[ii]

So although the psychological sense of karma has always been part of the Buddhist teaching, it has not usually been distinguished from the universal sense of karma. But actually, the two meanings of karma have very different implications. The universal law of karma is a matter of religious belief. It is not possible for ordinary people to understand the workings of universal karma; as the Buddha said, the workings of karma are unthinkable. It is simply a matter of trusting that this is the way that the universe works. Moreover, a belief in the universal law of the karma is tied up with a belief not only in rebirth but also in the various realms of existence posited by Buddhist cosmology. All in all, the universal law of karma is a matter of religious belief.

By contrast, the psychological law of karma is not a matter of belief, but is something that we can observe and test for ourselves. Indeed, most of us have to some extent learned to do good and avoid evil just because of our past mistakes. But mostly this psychological law of karma appeals to our intuitive sense of morality as well as being easily testable through actual experience. The truth that good actions have good consequences which are experienced in the here and now seems to be part and parcel of the Dharma, which is said to be evident, timeless, inviting, guiding, to be experienced individually by the wise.

My sense is that Western Buddhists are generally more inclined to think of the law of karma in the psychological sense. This makes sense, as the psychological sense of karma is practical and empirical. The universal sense of karma is, by contrast, religious and indeed a matter of metaphysical speculation, since our knowledge of it is dependent on the the Buddhist tradition. It seems to me, moreover, that the universal meaning of the law of karma is incompatible with the scientific world-view in many ways, and for this reason many western Buddhists actually do not believe in the law of karma as universal justice, while nevertheless the law of karma as a clear psychological teaching is central to their conception of the Dharma. So the distinction of psychological and universal meanings of the law of karma is important for clarifying what is distinctive about western Buddhism.

[i] Dhammapada, verse 127, my trans.

[ii] Richard Gombrich traces the origins of the Buddha’s teaching of karma in Brahmanical and Jain traditions in What the Buddha Thought, Equinoxe, London, 2009.

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