Meanings of Karma – Then to Now

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

The Buddha was not the first to speak about karma. This might come as a shock for those unfamiliar with the religious practices on the Indian continent before and during the life of Siddhartha. The concept, belief and practice of karma was first written about in the Upanishads around 500 bce, approximately 20 years after the birth of Siddhartha Guatama. Karma had been a factor in the many religious traditions of India for centuries before either event. Siddhartha, learned in the doctrines of karma from Hindu traditions creatively re-described the doctrine as a philosophical and practical ideal in Buddhism.

In Wendy Doniger’s book, ‘The Hindus: An Alternative History’ is a tracing of the layers of meaning in the Hindu concept and practice of karma (karma). The Upanishadic sages viewed death not as the end but as a beginning, a part of a cycle of beginning and ending that involved birth and rebirth. In the Upanishads the sage Yajnavalkya was asked by a pupil, “What happens to the person after death?” In answer the sage said, “A man becomes something good by good karma and something bad by bad karma”. Yajnavalkya was speaking of what form, good or bad, of rebirth could be expected dependent on that man’s good or bad karma, yet his answer has equal value with the acceptance of rebirth subtracted.

The most basic meaning of karma is action, whether physical or mental, doing or thinking. There are personal consequences (karmic consequences) attached to what is done, said or thought. A creative re-description of this meaning is that karma is human physics in action. Every action is affected by previous actions, every action is the cause of another action.

Karma is also ‘ritual action’ as it arises in the Rig Veda, the widely revered Hindu text. Offering a sacrifice, bathing in the Ganges or paying tribute to a holy man generates karma. In EDIG ‘rituals of intent’ are performed, rituals meant to be intentional reminders that what we do matters, a contemporary form of that ideal of ritual action. We want, in the words of Yajnavalkya to become something good by performing good actions.

In the Upanishads a third, new meaning arose for karma, the existence of a ‘karmic bank account’. Whenever one engaged in a morally charged action, an action based on good or bad objectives then the result would be deposited in that metaphysical account. This was the foundation for a fourth meaning, that morally charged actions would have direct consequences within each life and on future rebirths. In the Upanishad it was explained with the statement ‘you will become a sheep that people eat if you eat a sheep’. Yet, in the practice of animal sacrifice the same wasn’t a consequence.

With today’s actions affecting future lives a fifth meaning arose. Karma was not only the cause of future lives but must also be the guiding force for the present life. Actions taken in a previous life generated karma that affected how the present life was experienced. One was playing out a role dictated by what had been done rather than what was being done. In EDIG there is the realization that there are past causes of present circumstances and that what we know will affect the future, but this is only experienced between birth and death, not before and not after (at least as far as we can know now).

Given that karma was transferred from past, to present, to future lives the concept arose that good or bad karma might also transfer between people in particular situations. In the Vedic tradition this was already thought to happen between parent and child, and between sacrificial priest and believer. This sixth meaning added to that the possibility of karmic transfer in all human connections. The texts relate the example of a guest being allowed to depart a home unfed by their hosts. Whether this omission of courtesy was intentional or unintentional the guest would still leave with the host’s accumulated good karma and leave their own negative karma behind.

For some the concepts of karma and merit are synonymous. In EDIG these are understood to be linked but not interchangeable in language and meaning. Karma is action. Merit is what is learned from that action; the knowledge that develops into wisdom. This realization is offered at the end of each sangha session with the recitation of “Sharing the Merit” with the words ‘. . . we vow to share these benefits of our practice, service, and gifts with all beings’. Merit is viewed as the benefits that arise for self and others through the actions we take. Merit increases in value when it is selflessly shared. Likewise in the Puja for the Release of Compassionate Energy is the words ‘. . . the merits of the gathered’s compassionate energy are being offered to . . .”. Whatever the gathered sangha’s compassion can do to transform unsatisfactoriness, discontent and anguish is selflessly offered to any in need.

Siddhartha, through his own experience would have learned of these views of karma and undoubtedly they would have played a role in how he saw himself and the world around him. These views would have been contemplated on as he sat beneath the bodhi tree, as he came to his full awakening of the realities of human existence and how man might best get beyond habitual reactivity and experience nirvanic moments. There is, and will likely continue to be debate as to whether the Buddha connected karma and rebirth from a position of belief or from seeing its value as a way to promote positive moral ideals and ethical responses. In EDIG we get beyond that metaphysical debate and see karma as one of the foundations for that same ideal in the time each human beings inhabits between birth and death because it is within the boundaries of what we know we experience.

In the Nibbedhika Sutra (Anguttara Nikaya 6:3) the Buddha speaks of karma. ‘Karma (action) should be known. The cause by which karma comes into play should be known. The diversity in karma should be known. The result of karma should be known. The cessation of karma should be known. The path of practice leading to the cessation of karma should be known.’ Thus it has been said. Why was it said?

Intention, I tell you, is karma. Intending, one does karma by way of body, speech, & intellect.’

We must be aware of our actions, must know why they were taken, whether better choices of action needed to be made, how actions impacted our self and others, and when actions must cease. The path of practice the Buddha speaks of is found in the Eightfold Path and is made clear in next verse . . . intention. With intent we reveal karma by taking physical, verbal and mental action.

Thinking good, wholesome thoughts leads to good, wholesome speech and action. Taking good, wholesome actions leads to good, wholesome speech and thought. Saying good, wholesome words leads to good, wholesome thoughts and actions. All of these scenarios are real and have been experienced, proven to be reality.

To practice Buddhism is this moment and the moments to follow until death let’s set aside the metaphysical concept of rebirth. The threat that if we don’t do good in this life that our next lives will suck shouldn’t be necessary for us to realize the value of doing good for self and others and the planet. Our moral ideals mustn’t be based on selfishness, on protecting the ego no matter past, present or future. Instead we must base moral ideals on our experiences. When we, or others do good then that good is realized far beyond the individual. That is the selfless reason to do good.

We can’t deny rebirth because we simply don’t know if it is a fact. So, instead of wasting precious moments arguing and debating it let’s set it aside and just make the effort to cease to do harm, do only good, and do good for others. Let’s act with compassion and generosity. Let’s offer trust, respect and loving-kindness to all. Doing these things will certainly make human lives from birth to death a more positive, wholesome experience . . . and . . . if rebirth is a fact then we are covered because we’ve been the best human beings we can be in this life . . . the only life we really know.

The Upanishads and the Rig Veda offered views of karma. Buddhist sutras and texts offer views of karma. You and I offer views of karma by how we respond to each unique situation we encounter.


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