The law of karma is fundamental to the Buddhist worldview

Nov 2, 2023


If we take on board Buddha’s view that we can become an enlightened being, then understanding karma is vital; without it, it’s not possible. 


The view of karma, the natural law of cause and effect, is fundamental to Buddhist teachings – his view about the world, how it comes into being, what our mind is, what causes happiness, what causes suffering, etc., and, finally, how we can transform our mind into the mind of a buddha.


So, this law plays out in the mind. The mind, for the Buddha, is where things happen. The mind is where the workshop is. The mind is where the source of suffering is. The mind is where the source of happiness is. 


The usual views are that we are either created by a superior being or by our parents. Well, we think, if I’m not created by somebody else, where do I come from?


For the Buddha, it’s neither. The law of karma is like self-creation, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said. In a simple sense, you could say you come from previous moments of yourself. Think of your mind as a river of mental moments – your thoughts and feelings of now, in the simplest linear sense of cause and effect, come from the previous moment of your thoughts and feelings. And your thoughts and feelings of the previous moment come from – guess what? – the previous moment of your thoughts and feelings. If my mind existed then, it must have come from a previous moment of my mind. Then clearly you get back to the first moment of conception, when we all assume we began. If you’re Christian, God put a soul there, in the egg and sperm; and if you’re a materialist, you are only the egg and sperm. 


Well, the Buddha has this third option. Your egg and sperm are there, but what causes them to stay together is the entry of consciousness, your consciousness. So you can track your consciousness in this continuity of mental moments going right back to that first moment of conception. 


“Well, I must have begun then.” Well, yes, relatively speaking, this package called “Robina” began then, but where did the body come from? Mummy and Daddy. Where did your mind come from? A previous moment of itself. So your mind is its own continuity of mental moments. 


It’s a very simple concept, actually. Not difficult for us to intellectualize, to theorize about. Your mind is its own continuity. And obviously, to assume this, you have to assume it’s not physical. Because, clearly, if you think your mind is your brain, then you did come from your parents, which is the view of philosophical materialism.


And so the experiential implication of this is that your mind is yours. And that means you can be in charge of your mind, you can change it. And what are the contents of your mind? All the love and the kindness and compassion and wisdom and contentment and anger and jealousy and fear and paranoia and rage – all of this. We can get rid of the unhappy states of mind, according to the Buddha, and grow the good qualities.


So all of these, being contents of your mind, they too come from previous moments of that particular quality in your mind. This is a simple idea that implies reincarnation, isn’t it? It’s a simple concept, not a difficult concept intellectually. But we’re so familiar with the views that we either track ourselves back to a creator or to our parents that we just can’t hear it easily.


We come into this life fully programmed with all of our tendencies, with all of our characteristics. It’s a big surprise to us. I mean, we accept we come fully programmed, but we think the programming comes from mother and father. It doesn’t, Buddha says. Tendencies in the mind are mental and mind is not physical and it comes from previous moments of itself, not from the external condition, which is called the brain. You could say that the brain is a physical indicator of what is going on in the mind, at least at a gross level.


Or we hear the view of karma as punishment and reward; that’s pretty deep in our bones, that view. But in Buddhism there is no such concept: there is no creator, therefore no punisher and no rewarder. 


The first moment of any given action, or karma, has to be in the mind: intention, volition. Every microsecond of everything we think and feel, and indeed do and say, with our body and speech on the basis of what’s in the mind, is a karma. An intentional action that necessarily will leave an imprint, or a tendency or a seed in your consciousness and will ripen in the future in that consciousness as your experiences and your tendencies. What goes on in our mind, in other words, is the main cause of our future experiences. This is what Buddha says.


Buddha’s saying basically: we are the creators of ourselves. A big surprise!

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