What Is Karma? How Does It Work?
Dr. Stephen Fulder
Karma simply means action. No more, no less. It is the way of the world: a law of action and reaction. It is about influences; the influence of all things on all things, and as this is such a vast network of interactions throughout the universe, it is quite impossible to say what exactly will be the result of any action. Think of the Butterfly Effect, the well known scientific discovery that merely the flapping of the wings of a butterfly somewhere can, in the end, influence the weather on the other side of the world. Karma is what makes an oak tree keep on being an oak, and not switching midway through its life to being a fig tree. It has a strong tendency to ‘oaking’. Karma is the patterns that keep maintaining themselves, and so one can also say that karma is what keeps the world going round, in more or less the way it has been.
Karma is not just about living beings or human actions. But it is of course our human tendencies which are most interesting to us. Karma is the way in which the kind of seeds we sow in our life tend to create similar results. If we sow seeds of health, harmony, and goodness, we are likely to reap crops of the same type. If we sow seeds of harm, exploitation, and self-centredness, we are likely to face similar things in our lives. However there are no rules here, only tendencies.
Action and reaction happens, but the system is so big that it also gives us a lot of freedom. Karma offers a position that is neither total chaos, nor a deterministic world that works like clockwork, but somewhere in between. In the ocean of influences and possibilities there is plenty of room for us to change ourselves and our lives. For example, a very strong cycle of action and reaction is addiction. The cigarette we smoke now makes the next one more possible. This is how karma operates. But we do have the power to change, to break the habits, and change the conditions: to clean up our act.
This is very far away from the common view of karma which is ‘do good otherwise you will pay for it in the next life’. Some years ago, the director of British football at the time, Glen Hoddle, mentioned in passing, during a speech to the British Parliament, that according to the law of karma disabled people became that way because of misdeeds that they must have done in a previous life. This so offended the Parliament that he lost his job. But besides the offence, he was expressing a completely mistaken view of karma. A letter of mine pointing out the mistake was published in a leading British newspaper. Here are some common misconceptions:
Karma is a system of reward and punishment. It is more or less the same as ‘fate’. No it is not. It is much less personal and less interested in us. It is much, much bigger and much less predictable. It is closer to our concept of ‘nature’. We all want a predictable world, and long for some order, and so we imagine that there is a kind of book with our rewards and punishments written in it, and that we can in some way control our fate. But intuitively we know it doesn’t work like that. Good men can and do have terrible fates, as we saw in the Holocaust, and the reverse is also true. Even the Buddha clearly expressed that the network of influences in the world is so vast that no-one, including himself, was able to predict what would be the results of a particular action.
Karma is the influence of one life on the next. No, this is also a great oversimplification. Karma is about the influence of one moment on the next. The quality of one moment influences the quality of the next. As we live and die and perhaps are reborn moment by moment, it operates in our lives, between lives and, mostly between moments. The belief in re-incarnation is a belief, no more than that. There is no reason to suppose that karma works more between one life and the next, than it does in this very life. For example it is common in Jewish life to say that we do a good action so that we will gain rewards in ‘The World To Come’. But in the deeper Jewish teachings of the Kabbalah, ‘The World To Come’ means: ‘The World That Keeps Coming’, namely the next moment. It is there we see the results of our actions. Indeed, it wiser to watch it happening in this life where we can learn from the way things influence us and we influence others, than to dump our problems and mistakes into some unknown future.
Karma is about actions. No, it is mostly about intentions behind the actions. For example a surgeon will cut a body with a knife. This is a healing act creating, hopefully, healing results for his patient. The same cutting action with a knife performed when someone stabs another person in anger has the opposite intentions and the opposite karma.
We may well ask, if karma, properly understood, is not a one-to-one rule of reward and punishment, how does it help us? Does the concept of karma, add anything to us? I think it does. Primarily, it helps us understand that our intentions and actions, spread into the world, are not meaningless. All are meaningful. Our actions and efforts are not lost. They spin off into the world influencing the way things are. Therefore we have to take care of our thoughts, intentions and actions: they make change in the world and we are responsible for them. Karma is a guide to wholesome and harmonious living. It is similar to an ecological way of life. The rubbish or pollutants we throw out into our precious planet do not actually disappear but come back to haunt us and give us diseases. On the other hand if we care for and purify our environment we live a more pure and healthy life.
If we understand that the quality of our actions influence the quality of life, it can create a radical shift in the way we do things. For example, if we believe in peace and want to end conflict, according to conventional thinking, we need to forcefully convince others of our views. According to karmic understanding, we do it differently – we act peacefully so as to bring peace. There is a traditional Eastern saying that expresses this well:
“Sow a thought, reap an act,
Sow an act, reap a habit,
Sow a habit, reap a personality,
Sow a personality, reap a destiny.”
We can sow the best seeds, and hopefully reap the best fruit, in this life, if we pay attention to what we are doing. We can watch karma happening as the things we do in the world roll on and on, creating results in the most unexpected places. One lie which we tell, can make a big mess and do harm to us or others, can make us feel guilty, uncomfortable and agitated, can boomerang on us, can steal our peace and joy. If we watch this process carefully we can see the wheels of karma rolling, and know that we must be caring, wise and responsible in all our thoughts, our words and deeds.