Runcible Blog

What is karma?

There's no such thing as karma.

I often hear people say that some event happened due to "karma" -- a kind of universal justice system. I kick a dog, and someday a dog will attack me. I help an old lady cross the street, and someday when I'm old, someone will help me. The catch is that you never know when "karma" is going to come back and bite you or benefit you. So, the idea is always to be vigilant, courteous, and good.

But I think that understanding karma as a law of nature is an extremely limited view of the concept – maybe even antithetical to the definition. Thousands of years of monotheistic tradition have taught us in the west that God punishes evil-doers and rewards the righteous. More recently, preachers interpret God's influence in more subtle ways (at least in non-fundamentalist traditions) – there may not be a literal heaven or hell, but God still has influence over our suffering or pleasure on this earth. In either case, God is the external force acting on our lives. God is the immutable law of nature. God is karma. The word karma, as used by people with a monotheistic background, is a neutral way of saying God. Or perhaps more scientifically, karma is analogous to the Conservation of Momentum. I suppose it's not hard for a modern person to make the case that if momentum, mass, energy, and force must be conserved in the universe ("every action has an opposite and equal reaction"), then why can't a law be applied to human interactions? Sounds reasonable enough, right?

The problem with this understanding of karma is that it clouds one's intention for doing good deeds or avoiding harmful acts. If I think that I shouldn't lie because karma or God will come and get me later, then I'm missing the point that I shouldn't lie because it might hurt the person I'm lying to. There doesn't need to be an external force in this case (or any case!) judging my actions. It's just me and everyone else involved. I'll admit, though, that the conscience has a lot easier job to do when it merely checks against a set of rules: don't cheat, don't steal, don't lie, don't kill. Why not? because God, Karma, Fate, Flying Spaghetti Monster will smite you if you do. Simple.

The ultimate "golden rule": "love thy neighbor as thyself" fits well with this limited understanding of karma. Whether we live by Commandments, Precepts, or just one special rule, we abdicate the responsibility to understand our intentions. We have faith that the rules are correct and will lead us to happiness. Violation leads to our demise. It's a little harder, however, to think, "what's the right course of action?" in every situation. But it's what we ought to do – forget about the rules.

Following rules of moral conduct on the surface seems like a selfless ideal, but that behavior hides a selfish goal: I should be a "good" person or else I'll go to hell or have Karma screw with my life. No, do the "right" thing all the time because it's the "right" thing to do. Why should we need a Creator, law of nature, or rulebook to determine how we should live our lives? Don't treat others as you want to be treated; treat them as they should be treated. (where should is this really vague word that everyone can argue about)

The other problem with our limited understanding of karma is the mysterious phenomenon: Why do bad things happen to good people? If karma holds true, then good people should have accumulated enough good karma that terrible things shouldn't happen to them. But we know from experience that this isn't the case. Which is the more likely conclusion:

  • a) God works in mysterious ways, and if He decides you should get hit by a bus, then it's all part of His grand plan.
    b) You may have lots of good karma today, but the bus hit you because you must've been a really terrible person in your previous lives.
  • There is no God or Karma. You have responsibility over every decision you make, but you will still experience pain no matter how saintly you live.

It's important to remember that we create karma in our minds. We also manufacture suffering, happiness, and the concepts of right and wrong. I'm reminded of a movie I just saw, Edmond, which ends with the main character living in prison after murdering someone (oops, did I give away the ending?). But he says that he finally feels safe in prison – like he was meant to be there all along. One thing to take away from the film, if nothing else, is the capacity to create our own prison (or heaven) in our heads. By society's standard, Edmond was being punished in the worst possible way: life in a cruel prison, but Edmond thrived in his new home. Unfortunately, that was due to psychosis rather than enlightenment, so we shouldn't read too much into the script...

I think I wanted to end with some universal message, but I started writing this early in the day, and now it's late. I've lost my train of thought. The message is really simple though: There is no force of Karma ruling our lives. Every tragedy or blessing feels the way it does because we create the feeling and the distinction between happiness and sadness. Imagine how painless life could be if we just stopped making the distinction? Easier said than done...

P.S. Somewhat related – on my outdated page, I said "Someday, I'll meet and kill Buddha." I thought that was really witty, but somehow I doubt that anybody gets the joke. The idea comes from a parable of sorts that I read somewhere. A wise man said, "If you meet Buddha on the side of the road, kill him." And I don't think there was any other explanation for the words, but that advice makes perfect sense. In a literal way, how can you meet Buddha when he's been dead for 2,500 years? That's silly. Abstractly, however, the advice is warning against the belief in powerful external forces. You could substitute God or the devil in the sentence and get the same meaning – you create the concepts of deity or karma; you can just as easily destroy them. And if you start seeing Buddha, you know your mind is really messed up. It's better to kill that jolly fat man than to walk down the road of extreme delusion. Don't worry, it's all in your head.