Karma is like self-creation

Jun 3, 2024



Dear Robina Courtin,




I hope this message finds you well.


I was introduced to Buddhism and the concept of karma, and I’m trying to reconcile this idea with my life experience.


Can you explain it to me, please? It sounds to me just like any other religion: punishment and reward. But I hear it’s not that, so please help me understand.


Thank you very much





Dearest A,


I’m glad to hear from you! I understand well what you’re saying.


The Buddhist view of karma, this natural law that runs the universe, is hard for us modern people to get our heads around. We’re so familiar with the views of our religions that talk about a creator, which means therefore someone in charge, therefore someone who judges and punishes and rewards, that when we hear about karma, we think it’s a variation of the same thing — punishment and reward.


But there’s no such concept in Buddhism! No creator, therefore no punisher and no rewarder. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, karma is like self-creation.


Actually, we’re very familiar with this idea of creating ourselves; it’s just that we don’t think of it this way. We know very well that everything we think and do and say in learning music, let’s say, or cooking or carpentry — anything — just naturally is the process that produces a musician or cook or carpenter. We know we ourselves produce the musician.


Well, Buddha’s view is that that’s exactly how it is when it comes to suffering and happiness. Everything any being — humans, animals, everyone — thinks and does and says just naturally is the process that produces our future experiences: we produce a suffering person or a happy person.


Of course, we have to look into this, read about it, think it through, to try to find the logic.


Using it to just increase our self-hate is not helpful at all. When we begin to use it skillfully it enables us to have incredible compassion for ourselves, self-respect, and self-confidence. It empowers us because we realize we’re in charge.


Using just simple examples: We know that if we eat too much sugar etc. we’ll get diabetes. We can feel guilty about it, or blame the sugar-makers; or we can accept the fact that I am the one who does the eating, so I can therefore have the courage to stop the eating. It’s up to me. It’s not guilt, it’s not blaming: it’s a sense of accountability, of a recognition that we have the power to make decisions.


And, of course, karma also refers to all our good experiences, but we never think about this. In fact, every single moment of anything good that we have ever experienced, every good tendency in our mind, or good qualities — all of this is also as a result of our own actions, our virtuous actions.


I often joke — but it’s true! — that we always ask,Why do bad things happen?But never has anyone ever asked me,Why do good things happen?”!


Buddha uses the analogy of seeds and fruits. I like that one. So in the same way that everything in your garden is the result of seeds that you planted or, in the case of weeds, didn’t pull out, then everything in our life is the result of seeds we have planted. Our life is our garden, and whatever’s in it, we put it there. 


I love that idea! I find it more scary to either think that it’s simply good luck or bad luck and that I’m just this innocent victim that is randomly experiencing good things and bad things; or to think it’s someone else’s fault. Either way, there’s nothing I can do about it! Awful!


The view of karma enables me to be accountable, to know that I can change my mind, can determine my own future; that I’m not just some victim.


But it takes time, A. Don’t push. And don’t think about it too much if it’s not helping. Focus on the view, which is central in Buddhism, that we all have amazing potential and that the negative states of mind are not at the core of our being, do not define us. The good ones do!


Happy to discuss more!


Love to you,



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