An understanding of the law of karma is one of the primary forces through which we transform our daily lives into dhamma practice. Karma means action that is backed by will, intention or volition. Unintentional action is not karma, e.g., if you step on an ant because you do not see it, there is no karma accumulated. While acting out of delusion does have its own karma, if you say something to someone that they find offensive, but there truly was no intention in your heart to harm or hurt, there is no karma. Volition takes its active force through body, speech and the drives of the mind. Karma reveals the nature of the relative world in a way that allows us to bring the teachings to life, make them our own.
When the Dalai Lama was in the U.S. several years ago, he was asked which would be more important to teach: the ultimate emptiness of all conditioned phenomena, or the interrelatedness of conditioned phenomena through the laws of karma. He replied that it would be more important to teach the laws of karma. That is how profound this understanding is, and how relevant to fully living the teachings.
The law of karma is called the light of the world because it illuminates our way and opens up the possibility of recreating our lives. The most important element of spiritual life is having a sense of path—if we have this, then, to actualize it is merely a question of application, time and patience. Without a sense of path, we move from darkness to darkness, not knowing how to get free. Our understanding of the law of karma expresses itself as our sense of path.
In the legend surrounding the Buddha’s enlightenment, it is said that he felt great reluctance to teach the truth he had seen. A clever descendent from the heaven worlds urged him to use his psychic vision to survey the world, hoping that what he saw in doing this would arouse his compassion and he would decide to teach. The Buddha did this, his compassion was aroused, and, therefore, 2500 years later you are reading this article.
It is said that what so moved the Buddha was not even the extent of suffering he saw, but rather, the extent of people’s ignorance: He saw that everyone wanted to be happy and that so very few beings knew how. It is just the same with all of us today. We want so much to be happy, all of us, and yet we might find ourselves doing the very things that continually bring us pain.
It is quite a pathetic world, our world. That basic desire to be happy is being expressed in ever more distorted and twisted ways. Even in very horrible manifestations, the strongest addictions, the most terrible violence, if we look to the root of it, we will find an urge to connect, to feel a part of something greater than oneself, to be happy. That is why a sense of path is essential, why an understanding of the law of karma is essential—so we can realize what will actually bring us happiness.
What we do is important, what we care about is important, what we dedicate our lives to is important. It makes a difference in the quality of our lives, the quality of the world.
According to the law of karma a certain volitional action will bring a certain result—just as when we plant a certain type of seed it will yield a certain type of fruit. If we plant an apple seed, we may beg and plead with the universe to give us a harvest of mangoes, but it doesn’t work, because we live in a world governed by laws of nature, not in a crazy haphazard world where things just happen any old way.
There is a phrase in Pali, kamma saccata, the ownership of our karma. This will determine a vast amount of experience in our lives, as well as rebirth. We are supported by, dragged down by, made buoyant by our own actions, depending on whether or not they are in harmony with the truth. We are pursued by our karma the way a person is followed by their shadow.
Karma is the law of connectedness—between what we have done and the results for ourselves and others. The results arise according to the ethical tone or quality of the action, and it is very simple. Unskillfully motivated actions bring unhappiness and discord; skillfully motivated ones bring happiness and harmony. Unskillful motivations include grasping, aversion and delusion; skillful ones include generosity, lovingkindness and wisdom.
We can see the immediate effect here and now coming from an action. Acts of doubt, fear, confidence, compassion, all have a vibrational tone that affects the present moment like a force field they create within and without us. That force field is an indication of what will follow someday, somewhere, when the seeds of our acts ripen.
We can also sense the power of our mental volitions when we see what happens if a strong mood or feeling is present. If we’re sad or angry or depressed, we can be in the most beautiful place and we’re miserable. If we’re in love, or filled with deep peace, or have strong faith, then we’re fine even in very difficult situations. Our minds are very powerful.
Sometimes, our internal world is so strong it calls forth an immediate response from the universe. In a certain period in my life, I was locked into rooms three times in one week. I went to a wedding and was locked in a storeroom; I went to a shopping mall and was locked in a vestibule. Each time, as someone released me, they said, “This has never happened before. I don’t understand it, this lock isn’t defective, this door doesn’t stick.” I was finally forced to admit that the external universe was responding to my internal state.
This kind of thing happens because our actions (of body, speech and mind) have consequences. We don’t do something, or say something, or repeatedly identify with some drives in the mind, and have these things just disappear into a void. We’re not disconnected and isolated—we are a part of a whole, connected, and our experience reflects this.
When I was driving in our un-air-conditioned car this summer during the heat wave in Massachusetts, I kept thinking, “Is this heat a result of what we have done to the environment? Is it going to be this way for the rest of my life?” We do things as though they don’t matter, as though the results will somehow evaporate. But they don’t. We have to live with what we have created.
Once in trying to free the Insight Meditation Society from flies, we considered importing geckos, a type of lizard that eats things like flies. Even aside from the question of what it means to import something to eat something else, we realized that introducing a new and strange element to our ecosystem could have far-reaching repercussions. I started to imagine what it would be like to wake up at IMS in ten or twenty years and have snakes crawling everywhere because they had been attracted to the thing that had been attracted to the thing that had been attracted to the geckos.
Someone this summer pointed out to me the concerns of deep ecology, which encompasses questions such as “What are the consequences of the Holocaust to the earth, with so many tons of ashes being dumped on it? What are the consequences to the air which the smoke of the crematories poured into? What are the consequences to all of us, that such a thing could have happened?” As Thich Nhat Hanh has pointed out, “The Vietnam War did not just happen to the Vietnamese people. The Vietnam War happened to everybody.”
Our actions have tremendous consequences. If they are born out of grasping, aversion or ignorance (which includes not thinking, not paying attention), these actions will bring suffering to ourselves and to others. The seed we are planting right now, in this moment’s reaction, this moment’s intention, is the most important part of any experience. The nature of our mind is a dynamic, ever-changing energy, constantly being conditioned and reconditioned. While what we are experiencing right now is outside of our control, how we are reacting to it depends upon our awareness. We don’t have to be victimized by our circumstances; in each moment we are planting a new seed. Our power is in being aware of our volitions, and in planting seeds of wisdom and joy.
It is quite unusual to have a system of morality that is based on awareness of one’s intentions having consequences rather than on an arbitrary external structure. This system of morality demands unstinting honesty, clarity and an ability to constantly forgive ourselves and begin again.
The reactions of others towards what we do may always be varied. As the Buddha said, “There is always blame in the world. If you speak a lot, some people will blame you. If you stay silent, some people will blame you. If you say a little bit, some people will blame you.” All any of us can do is to look at our motives as directly as we possibly can, to understand any actions.
The law of karma points out that, as beings living in the world, all of our activities must be part of our spiritual practice; every aspect of our lives must be a part of our spiritual journey. We dedicate our lives to courses of action that bring happiness to ourselves and others, rather than pain. Our lives are all of one piece, “a seamless garment” as it is called in Christian theology. Normally, we fragment and compartmentalize our lives, feeling that we can lie to acquaintances and still see good truths in meditation, or use our sexual energy in a way that hurts ourselves or others and still come to know transcendent love. Well, “Good luck!” It doesn’t work that way. We must recognize our lives as whole and connected, and act wisely with that recognition. In this way, our spiritual practice remains real and alive, and we come to know and share very great happiness.