How karma works

May 22, 2020

Everywhere people talk about “karma” as a vague notion that what goes around comes around. It’s not a bad way of putting it! And lots of people say they “believe in it.”

Well, if we have decided to take on board Buddha’s view of the world as our working hypothesis, merely believing in it is pretty useless. You don’t say “I believe in botany.” I mean, you could, and you’d get away with it because you can rely on the people who actually know botany: they’ve learned the laws, have proved them to be true, and incorporate them into their lives. But when it comes to growing a garden, merely believing in botany gets you nowhere.

Same with karma, this natural law of cause and effect that Buddha – and everyone else since he was around who’s used the methodology that he laid out – has observed and articulated and proved to be true.

Effectively our life is our garden: what’s in it is what we put in it. We don’t say “Who put weeds in my garden! I don’t deserve weeds!” because we know it’s our garden, we created it. And, for sure, same with the flowers.

But look at us when it comes to suffering and happiness, the weeds and flowers of life! We have no sense at all that what occurs in our life, even in our mind, has anything to do with us. We and our experiences are somehow the handiwork of someone else.

What an awful way to live life! No wonder we have so much fear! The view of a creator – at least someone has a plan! – is definitely a better world view than the nihislitic notion that no one knows why things happen, that it’s just good luck and bad luck – that’s just plain stupid.

Buddha’s not a creator, and he doesn’t assert one. We don’t need creating, he’s basically saying. Our consciousness goes back and back before birth and continues on and on after death – yes, he has proved this; all his methodolgy is there for us to follow if we want to experience the truth of it for ourselves, just like the natural law of botany. We don’t merely believe this, we take it as our hypothesis and work with it, step by step, proving things as we go (or proving that he’s wrong, in which case, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, you’d reject the Buddha; perfectly reasonable).

His Holiness sometimes refers to the law of the karma as “self-creation.” Everything we think and do and say just naturally programs us, sows seeds in our mind that will just naturally ripen in the future as our suffering and happiness. That’s it. Not complicated.

How do we apply this law? We observe the garden of life and learn from it. 

One way that our past seeds ripen in the present is environmentally. There are many workers in the hospitals full of Covid 19 patients who will not get sick or die. Why? They’ve had the same contact with the suffering human beings they’re taking care of as the workers who do get sick and die, but they are experiencing the result right now of their past non-killing. That environment, if you like, of sick people is not harming them. The learning? Reinforce our decision not to kill.

How food impacts upon us: same: envirnonmental karma. Some people die from eating a peanut: that’s the result of killing in the past. Some people can eat anything and have no health problems. The learning? Reinforce our decision not to kill.

Another way karma ripens is as our experiences in relation to others. I tell the truth but people don’t believe me: that’s the experience similar to the cause of past lying. Equally, I could be lying and someone will believe me: the experience similar to the cause of past telling the truth. The learning? Reinforce our decision not to lie.

Because we’re totally attached to the good things, we just assume that we deserve them so never ask the question, “Why do good things happen?” Just give me more please! And because we can’t stand the bad things, we agonize about why they happen and believe totally that we don’t deserve them. 

We’re obsessed with the bad things, they loom so large in our lives, but we never think about the good things. We just the for granted. But we know when it comes to our garden that the laws of botany apply to both the weeds and the flowers. We planted the lot! It’s our garden! 

Every second of our experiences and every second of what arises in our mind: it’s all the fruits of our past seeds. It’s not a complicated idea – just a shocking one because we think the exact opposite.

What’s the experiential implication of this law? Same as with botony. Having learned the laws – not just believing in them! – we assess what’s in the garden, our garden. We recgonize clearly the seeds we must have planted. Then we pull out the weeds and make sure we don’t plant more and we delight in the flowers and make sure we keep planting them. 

Living accoording to this view hugely changes the way we experience our life. It lessens attachment – the assumption that I deserve only the flowers – and lessens anger – the assumption that I don’t deserve the weeds. We become more stable, less fearful, less depressed, more content, more in charge of our life. What a relief! We’re the boss!

And then we realize that we’re all in the same boat. We will have such compassion! Because everyone is suffering unbearably, driven by attachment and anger and zero understanding of cause and effect.

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