Karma, or Cause and Effect

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by Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo

Let us explore the nature of karma, because I think karma is quite misunderstood in the West. There are various understandings in different religious traditions of the meaning of karma, but here we’ll examine the Buddhist understanding of that term. Actually, the word karma in Sanskrit means “action.” It also means “work.”

All actions we undertake not only with our body but with our speech and with our mind are expressions of karma. It’s the action part that counts, not the result.

The Buddha himself said that by karma he meant intention, chetana. Karma is intention. This means that every intentional action of body, speech, or mind plants seeds in our mind stream. Sooner or later, in that lifetime or in future lifetimes, those seeds will sprout and ripen. That ripening is called vipaka, which means a result of the karma. And that is what we experience. We have to understand that karma isn’t some kind of over-powering or all-pervading fate. The little seeds planted in the past are eventually going to sprout up. How and when they sprout is undetermined.


When The Lord Buddha Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment it wasn’t just a sudden zap. It was a very gradual opening of the mind. In the first watch of the night as he sat under the Bodhi Tree in Bihar, he went back through all his previous births. He went through aeons and aeons of time, through devolutions and evolutions of the universe, back through billions of years, knowing: At that time, I was like this. At that time, I lived like this and then I died, and I was reborn like that. Time has no meaning on an absolute level, and so in a very short time he was able to experience all this. Then, in the second watch of the night—a watch is a three- hour period—his mind opened still further to encompass all beings: their coming into existence, their duration, their passing away and coming again into a new being. And in the third watch of the night, just before dawn, he realized the interconnection and the relativity of all things: interdependent origination. That is when he became a Buddha.

Nowadays in our very humanistic, scholastic mode we say, “Oh well, the Buddha talked about karma because it was the fashion of the day. You know, everybody in those days believed in karma, or many people did, so he just took it on board as part of his doctrine.” But it wasn’t like that. It was part of his enlightenment to actually experience how beings come and how beings go, and how they are interrelated and interconnected—how karma works. Later on, his main attendant and cousin, Ananda, said to him, “Well, karma is kind of com- plicated, but I think I’ve got it now.” The Buddha replied, “Don’t even say that. The understanding of karma is the province only of the mind of a fully enlightened one.”

Only a Buddha can really understand karma, because only a Buddha can see the total pattern, the whole tapestry. We just see a tiny part, and on the wrong side usually—the side with all the knots and the loose ends. And then we try to understand the total pattern from that tiny square, but how is that possible? We need to look at the other side at a distance in order to see how all those red and green and blue threads form a pattern. I don’t mean that our life patterns are already woven. We are continually weaving. That’s the whole point.

The Buddha said that karma is intention. This means that the seeds we sow are influenced not by the actual overt action, but by the motivation behind that action. Whenever we do anything, we can always justify it to ourselves. We always have high and moral reasons for doing whatever we do, and we can usually think of excuses for much of our conduct. But what is the real, underlying reason for what we do and say and think? Because it is that, the genuine reason, not the reason by which we justify ourselves, which is going to color and influence the kinds of seeds that are being sown. That’s one reason why mindfulness is so emphasized in Buddhist practice: we have to become aware not only of the superficial actions, thoughts, and ideas, but of what is really going on underneath. In order to make things very simple, Buddhist psychology divides these motivations into what are called the six roots; three negative roots and three positive roots are seen as underlying incentives for all our actions. Although it’s a great simplification, it’s amazing how such classification does actually clarify what we do and say and think.


The Three Negative Roots are our old friends the three poisons. That means basic delusion or confusion, greed or desire, and anger or hatred. Any action we perform with an underlying motivation of delusion, greed, or ill will is negative, and it will result eventually in negative effects. Actions we perform with the opposite of that are traditionally known as non-delusion, non-greed, and non-ill will. That means we engage in actions with understanding, or clarity of mind; detachment, or generosity (the opposite of greed is generosity—which means wanting to share and to give, rather than to keep it all for oneself); and loving-kindness and compassion. These three wholesome roots will eventually bring a very good harvest. Therefore, it is necessary for us to understand what we are doing and why we are really doing it, and to allow as much clarity into the situation as possible.

From a Buddhist point of view, we have all lived countless lifetimes in so many different forms—as male and female, as human beings and as animals, as spirits, and as all sorts of things. There is almost nothing we haven’t done at some time. This is one reason why we’re so connected with all beings—we’ve shared their experiences at some time, even though we’ve now forgotten them. Sometimes we are high, sometimes we are low; sometimes we are poor, sometimes we are rich; sometimes we are very clever, sometimes we are stupid. We’ve done it all. Sometimes we are nice people, and sometimes we’re absolutely awful. Who are we to condemn when we have probably experienced everything at some time or another?

And because we have planted so many diverse seeds, even if in this lifetime we’ve been really good people, it may be that we have to experience the results of a crop which we sowed at some previous time, one which was very negative. So, despite the fact that we’re very good people—we’ve always been kind and generous—we may yet have a life which is difficult and full of problems, maybe a life with ill-health, or with people cheating us, or whatever. We may feel that this is very unfair: “I’m such a nice person, how can this happen to me?” The reason is that we were not always nice people. Sometimes, we’ve been horrible people. Therefore we have to experience the fruition of those past actions. And we should be grateful, because if we respond with a positive mind now, we transform them from hardship into a teaching on the path, as a way of learning patience and cultivating compassion for the sufferings of others, too. Then we not only plant good seeds for the future, but we exhaust the bad seeds of the past.


I Had A Friend Who Had breast cancer. On the whole, I’m sure she had been a really nice person in her lifetime. She led a good and wholesome life. So she could well have thought, “Why is this happening to me? I’m so young, and yet look at this—what a very terrible thing to happen to me.” But once, when she was resting, she had a waking dream in which suddenly she found herself as a man: she was now a soldier in armor standing over another soldier, who was lying on the ground. He had a red cross on his breastplate, as if it was during the time of the Crusades. Holding a spear to his chest, she was looking down at him. He was pleading for his life, and she knew at that moment she had a choice. She could let him go or she could kill him. She looked into his eyes and his eyes looked into hers, and he was imploring. She thrust the spear right through him. And as she did that, she felt such an incredible pain at her chest, and then she awoke into present-day consciousness.

Whether or not that was just something which her mind brewed up, who knows? But it could also be an explanation for why so many centuries later, she was now having this terrible disease. In this lifetime she was a good person. But we plant seeds, and they have to come up once the right conditions appear. We have to accept that.


And That Brings Us To the next part of this whole question. Now we are here, and we have this lifetime. We don’t come into this world as empty blank sheets, no matter what the psychiatrists like to tell us. I’m sure those of you who have had children know very well that each child is very different right from the start. We look into the eyes of a small baby, and it’s a person! We bring with us the patterning and conditioning of many, many lives.

Therefore in this lifetime there will be certain things which happen to us; certain events which are likely to occur. But there are infinite crossroads; it’s not all laid out. We are going along and the road branches. If we take this path then we will go on and we will meet more turnoffs. Or if we take that path, we will meet with other turnoffs, and so on. It’s like that. It’s not as though one way has already been set out for us, one way predestined for us. Some people have the kind of lives which look like that. For instance, my own life has always seemed a bit predestined, presumably because of very strong imprints and aspirations from the past. When I try to make a detour, barriers come up, and I have to keep going the way I am supposed go. But nonetheless, we do have choice. This is the point of a human birth—we have choice. Even people who have clairvoyance say this is only what is likely to happen. It doesn’t have to happen; other circumstances can come up and we can change it. For example, at one time the Buddha was walking outside the city walls and he saw a ragged corpse. It was the body of a drunken wastrel who had just died. The Buddha said that this man, the son of a rich merchant, had originally been very wealthy. He had met with the Buddha, and was attracted to the Dharma, and had even thought of becoming a monk. But his wife dissuaded him and so he didn’t ordain. Eventually he began to gamble and drink and waste all his money. He ended up as a beggar. The Buddha said that if he had become a monk at that time, he would have become an Arhat. He would have become completely liberated.

Due to the seeds we have planted in the past, certain things are likely to happen. How we respond to those events plants new seeds. In other words, we are constantly creating our own future. If we make skillful responses, the results will be good. If we make unskillful responses, we will have a hard time in the future. We are responsible for our lives now and in the future. It is up to us. Ultimately, we can’t blame anyone else. Of course we are influenced by those around us. We are influenced by our upbringing; we are influenced by many things. But nonetheless, some people have had extremely traumatic lives—terrible childhoods, dreadful experiences in relation- ships, but they come out of it flying. Other people have had pretty good upbringings during which nothing really horrible happened, but they ended up committing suicide. It is up to us whether we surmount our difficulties and find the way to use all that we may encounter to strengthen ourselves; or whether we go under and become embittered and obsessed with our memories, reinforcing our sense of low self-worth. Things are going to happen. What is important is how we respond.

Photo by Elle Smed

Photo by Elle Smed

We meet someone, and they say something to us. How we reply will condition their next remark. If we respond in a disgruntled, angry way, they will answer in a surprised and annoyed way. Tension will escalate. Then we’re going to feel totally miserable and they’re going be upset, too. Everything will go wrong. But if we reply in a nice and friendly way, they will surely respond in kind and then everything will unfold in a more open direction.


Far From Being Something very heavy and fatalistic, karma, rightly understood, expresses our total responsibility. We always have this space within which we now make a choice as to what is a skillful or unskillful response. It’s not a static situation; it’s not something set in concrete. Karma is constantly flowing and changing as we go in new directions, depending on how we meet the present moment. We can go up or we can go down: it is our choice. We can’t put the blame on others—we can’t blame our upbringing, our parents, our relationships, or the government, or the country, or the weather. It’s up to us, to each one of us, moment to moment to moment. We act skillfully or we act unskillfully—the choice is ours. And that is karma, in a nutshell.

There many categories of karma: the kind of karma which operates immediately, the kind of karma which takes time, and so forth, but perhaps that’s not so important here. What is important is that we understand the basic ideas behind it, and understand that karma is not fate. It’s all those seeds we planted that are going to come up at some point. In every moment we plant new seeds. It’s an ongoing process. That’s very important to understand. Ultimately who we were in our past lives is totally irrelevant.


One Time, I Was Staying with my aunt. When I think of the “man in the street,” the ordinary person, I have to think about my family because normally I don’t really meet “ordinary” people. I meet with people who are interested in spiritual matters. Actually, I think that an interest in spirituality is normal, but apparently it isn’t!

In any case, my middle-aged aunt once gave a dinner party to which she invited a number of very old friends. They owned shops, or they were doctors, and so on. Just ordinary nice people. During this dinner with old friends whom she had known since adolescence, one of the men said, “I think in one of my former lifetimes I must have been Spanish, because when I went to Spain I felt this tremendous empathy with the land. I felt like I was going home even though outwardly it was a very different and alien environment.” And somebody else said, “Well, that’s funny, because I feel like that about Scotland. I really felt when I went there that I must have been Scottish at some time during my past lives.” Soon everybody at the table began to talk about who they thought they were in their past lives, and my aunt was aghast! She’d never realized that her friends had had any thoughts of this nature.

Finally one of them turned to me and said, “Ah, but Ani-la, the question is not who we were in our past lives, is it? It’s how we use this lifetime properly so that our future lifetimes will go well!”

That’s the point. Our past lifetimes are gone, so let them go. The point is this lifetime—what do we do with what we have now? How do we use this life skillfully to set ourselves in the right direction, so that in future lifetimes, having planted so many good seeds in this lifetime, we can go up and up and up? That’s the point.

Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo is one of the first Westerners to be ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist nun. Her efforts to promote the status of female practitioners in Tibetan Buddhism led to her establishment of the Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery in India.

From Into The Heart of Life. Published by Snow Lion Publications. Copyright © 2011 by Tenzin Palmo. Reprinted by permission of Shambhala Publications.

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