Considering Karma (written 2015)

21/10/2015 09:05

I've been thinking about karma, or kamma as it is written in Pali. My teacher is specific in explaining that kamma is action, and action is tied to intention. What we do/say/think intentionally. The consequences of volitional or intentional action have another name altogether in Pali (vipaka). Actions may be relatively straightforward but consequences are complicated. Complicated because there is so much more than my own intention and action at play. The intentions and actions of everyone involved, the conditions and context that surround intentions and actions. Here's where it spins out into the 10,000 things that contribute to any one event that takes place - 10,000 being just a place holder for very, very many! I think of the gatha by Robert Aitken:


Watching a spider at work

I vow with all beings

to cherish the web of the universe

touch one point and everything moves.


The web of the universe is vast. The number of beings who touch it uncountable. This web is vibrating with input from intentional action at all times. The important point for me to remember is that I am one of the beings within that web. My own actions contribute to the vibration. It is important that in this small sphere that is within my control, I make skillful and positive choices. Especially because kamma itself is morphing all the time. I may have acted unwisely or selfishly or with ill will in the past and the consequences of that action are out there, in the web of the universe. However, if I determine to do better and begin to act with wisdom, generosity and good will, I am contributing something else to the kammic web. The message I get from this consideration is that it is never too late to clean up my act on any level. It puts the responsibility on my shoulders to see clearly how my behavior has impact on the world and to make that impact positive, so far as I am able. And never to stop making that effort.


In the teachings of the Buddha there are many references to kamma that make such a point:

“whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir. To the extent that there are beings — past and future, passing away and re-arising — all beings are the owner of their actions, heir to their actions, born of their actions, related through their actions, and live dependent on their actions. Whatever they do, for good or for evil, to that will they fall heir.' (AN5.57)

But this is not a teaching exclusive to the Buddha. Indeed it seems that all spiritual teachings recognize this truth about life in some version of the “Golden Rule”.

Just exploring this a little, from the Christian Bible, I found in Galatians 6:7 “ A man reaps what he sows.” and Proverbs 22:8a “Whoever sows injustice reaps calamity.” with its mirror image in Proverbs 11:18b “The one who sows righteousness reaps a sure reward.”

Islam takes a similar view. In the Quaran passage known as The Star (53:39-40) it reads “a man will have nothing except that for which he has endeavored (to achieve) and that his endeavor will eventually be seen.” And in The Event (56.63) “Have you considered what you sow?”

My reflections make it clear to me, however, that responsibility is not a burden but a key to freedom. In the choices I make, and the intentions I form , however small, I contribute to the world. It is beyond my capacity to control everything, but I am not helpless in this scenario...not a fly on the web, caught, but more like the amazing spider making its way on careful feet, contributing, if I choose, to the world's beauty.