What is Karma?

Lately I’ve been having an ongoing discussion with students regarding the Buddhist idea of karma. It’s a complex and multi-faceted subject.

I’ve found that using the analogy of a game of billiards can be a useful way to describe the process of karma — the table is set up, you hit the ball, it in turn hits other balls, moves the configuration on the table around, and then sets you up for your next shot. After that, maybe another person takes a turn and moves the balls around and then it’s your turn again.

Just as in the analogy of a billiard game, our thoughts and actions ripple outward, collide with others’ thoughts and actions and generate consequences. These consequences create the setting in which we initiate our next set of thoughts and actions. Here we are obviously breaking down a process that is multi-dimensional, fast paced, and very complex into a simple metaphor for the sake of having a look at the process itself.

Even if we agree that, within our lives, cause and effect creates certain patterns beyond just an arbitrary flurry of activity, several questions arise. The first is, when does this highly connective, interactive process between our mind and body and the events that play out in our lives actually begin? Where does it come from?

Are we born into a random body at a random time and suddenly, due to chemical reactions in our little baby brain, start to experience a brand new consciousness that has had no previous cause or condition? When we die will the exact same phenomena happen in reverse? Will our consciousness simply cease to exist in any form whatsoever when the chemical reactions in our body and brain stop occurring? These are obviously very weighty questions and there are a multitude of theories to be found within both science and religion.

Whatever the take on the origin and destination of our consciousness in this life, my students and I agreed that during this very lifetime, it seems that very little, if any, of what occurs to us is truly random or haphazard — especially if we take a close look, moment by moment, day by day, of how events in our world develop and unfold. If we eat a giant lunch with lots of carbs and a huge dessert, than maybe we will feel full and sleepy that afternoon. If we do that every day, then maybe we put on some weight, which might in turn trigger a feeling of being upset with ourselves, which might trigger further craving, comments from others, and so on. To some extent all of us have experienced this kind of downward spiral, when a particular action, not accompanied by clarity of awareness, creates a chain reaction leading towards an undesirable result.

On the other hand, if we are very conscious of other people’s needs at work for example, treat them with respect and appreciation, we might actually find that the atmosphere at our job becomes more positive and people begin to act towards us in a similar way. However, if the other people at work have been up all night fighting with their spouses, then maybe they are grouchy and irritable right off the bat, and our attempt to create a harmonious situation is trumped by some other causes and conditions operating in parallel.

According to the Buddhist view, it is worth cultivating “positive” causes and conditions as the basis of creating beneficial circumstances for oneself and others — or certainly at least not causing harm. Likewise, cultivating “negative” causes and conditions can logically be expected to cause momentum in the direction of aggression, confusion, etc. So at a relative level, Buddhists, through various meditation and contemplation practices, cultivate “positive” thoughts and actions and work towards uprooting or diminishing the influence of “negative” ones.

Many other religious and philosophical traditions also emphasize this kind of common sense ethical behavior, but in Buddhism there is also the notion that the process of karma can be deconstructed completely. When our thoughts and actions are no longer created from a ground of habitual patterns and ignorance, the spiraling cycle of cause and effect (including both “positive” and “negative” karma) can be cut at the root.

As to when the process of karma, when the billiards game, begins or ends — what do you think?