I’ve had a couple of interesting conversations lately about “kamma” – do I believe in it, and if so, what do I believe about it.
As with any discussion of “things Buddhist” we must consider a few basic principles, such as the Noble Truths, the Three Characteristics of Things, and so forth. One of the most basic guiding principles is that we do not speculate on “things metaphysical.” Such speculations are without merit.
So, do I believe in kamma, and if so what do I believe? Well, yes and no. I do not “believe” in the sense of taking something on faith, but I do have confidence in the evidence which supports the concept of kamma. So, what is “kamma?” Kamma is a Pāli word (“karma” is the Sanskrit) which means literally ‘action.’ The “law” of kamma is a principle that states that for every action there is an effect, or consequence, or outcome of that action. And in the orthodox Buddhist traditions, kamma indicates “intentional” actions – that is actions which result from our choices. And we do not need to resort to metaphysical speculation in order to understand that kamma is at work in our lives.
Kamma is a principle, not a “thing” or a “stuff.” So Kamma does not accumulate like dust accumulates. But it does shape our lives as follows: We come to an intersection of two roads. We have a number of possible choices: straight ahead, right, left, back, or just stop. Our immediate future is contingent on whichever of those choices we make and act upon. A “left” choice puts us in a different place that a “straight ahead” choice. As we move down our path in life we are constantly making such choices, thus leading us in one of a multitude of directions.
Another example of kamma – intentional action and the consequences – is in my interactions with other people. If I am direct in my speech, honest in my speech, clear and concise in my speech, I will have far better communication (and relationships) than if I am coy, gamey, cutsie and insinuative in my speech. If I act with benevolence, compassion, joy in the successes of others and, with equanimity towards others, my relationships will be much more enjoyable than if I act needy, selfishly, and with emotional instability.
It is important to note that we can not always predict the results of our decisions, the full consequences of our actions. As a Dhamma teacher, I point out dukkhā and the workings of kamma in people’s lives, with the intention of facilitating their mindfulness and expanding their awareness, and encouraging them to practice. But some people take umbrage at these efforts, and respond with anger or hurt feelings.
It is important to note that kamma is not the sole determinant of place on the path of life. There are other people acting in ways that affect me, and there are natural forces and events which play a part in who, what and where I am. For example, I was on a path which I hoped would lead to me being a rock star. I was performing on weekends and studying music in college, when I got a letter over the signature of President Nixon, beganing something like:
You have been selected by your friends and neighbors to serve in the armed forces of the United States of America."
It was a life changing event! Eight years later, I was well on my way to becoming a psychologist with a commitment to living the noble path. No more thoughts of being a rock star. While I am responsible for the consequence of the decisions I made which took me down that path – kamma – there were many, many, many events over which I had no influence or control, but which affected the “trajectory” my life path followed.
Kamma does not explain my birth circumstances, nor my DNA makeup. Kamma is not determinative of anyone’s life. But it is an important principle we should be aware of and make our choices with due consideration. Kamma is a shorthand way of saying “What we do matters.”
Struggle on! But don’t suffer.