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The Common Western Understanding of Karma

The Buddha once said: “You harm yourself as dust thrown against the wind comes back to the thrower.” (The Dharma Bums) While there is immense power in these words, they are often misconstrued. Western people commonly fail to understand the subtlety of karma and tend to use the term unskillfully. As a result, the common understanding of “karma” does not reflect what the teaching truly is. If you ask a typical non-Buddhist Westerner to explain the concept of karma, they would likely say, “What goes around comes around,” “You reap what you sow,” or one of the many other countless clichés that have become equated with the term.

Most Westerners have come to understand karma as a universal phenomenon in which people are rewarded for good deeds with good fortune and punished for bad deeds with misfortune and suffering. By the Western definition, karma is a universal, moral justice system that has much to do with fairness and equality.

This misunderstanding is so widespread that it has a prominent role in Western media. It is often referenced in music and film, and is typically referred to as a reliable cosmic justice system. Most commonly, people speak of karma when trying to comfort themselves or others for various reasons. For instance, the assumption that the universe will reward people for doing good is both reassuring and encouraging—it makes people want to do good.

Likewise, people often find comfort in the idea that others who have caused harm will ultimately experience the suffering and misfortune they have “earned” through their past actions. It is human nature to want things to be fair, so it makes sense that many might find comfort in this notion of karma.

The Buddhist origins and translation of karma

Nonetheless, this common Western understanding of karma does not align with the Buddhist teaching in its most fundamental ways. If we return to the roots of the word, we find that karma is a Sanskrit word that directly translates as “action.” In some English texts, it is translated as “doing.” In either case, the teaching of karma more specifically refers to intentional action. In the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha says: “Intention, I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, and intellect.” (AN 6.63)

In many Buddhist traditions, there are two types of karma, which are wholesome and unwholesome actions. Which category our karma falls into is ultimately decided by our intentions. If one performs a certain action at this moment, it will serve as a foundation for a series of events that follow, good or bad. If the nature of one’s karma is wholesome, it can generate desirable results and experiences in the future. Inversely, if the intentions behind one’s action are unwholesome, it is likely that the impact will in some way involve suffering, whether that be to oneself or others. Our experiences as human beings are made up of a collection of karmic happenings: actions and reactions, and so on. So, in teaching his disciples about karma, the Buddha was trying to increase awareness of the fact that every seed that one plants throughout one’s day-to-day life has the potential to generate results and leave an impact on the future for oneself and for others in immeasurable ways.

Once we understand how the seeds of our karma can impact the world around us, we are more open to being compassionate. This understanding also enhances our mindfulness practices because when we think about our intentional actions in each moment, we no longer worry about our past actions or the outcomes (Skt: vipaka) that are no longer within our control. While we can certainly learn from them, we are not suffering from an ever-present fear of universally prescribed consequences for mistakes we have made in the past. Instead, we may focus on our actions and intentions in the present moment. Once again, Buddhist karma is not divine punishment, but rather one’s intentional actions. The law of karma is that actions have consequences. It has nothing to do with fate and ultimately emphasizes one’s independent power and ownership over one’s doings.

What does this mean for us?

Keeping the two definitions in mind, one might be compelled to ask how the Western theory of karma has come to be. It is likely that the term has been heavily influenced by Western culture, religion, and belief systems as it has become popularized in the West. While intentional action is the complete and direct definition of the teaching in Buddhist texts, Westerners have added a layer: “The universe will either punish or reward you for your actions based on whether they are good or bad.”

When you consider some of the most foundational facets of Western religion, it is not difficult to recognize where cosmic reward and punishment systems already exist. In many Abrahamic religions, practitioners believe that God is always watching over and, in many ways, judging them. While many religious leaders emphasize forgiveness for people’s wrongdoings as long as they acknowledge them, practitioners are still, in many ways, living to please God in order to avoid punishments.

This notion of constantly being watched and evaluated seeps into our culture in countless ways, whether it be in religious institutions, at home, at school, at work, or even online. People are constantly taught to believe that they must behave “correctly” to avoid punishments being inflicted on them by others—especially those deemed superior to them. Additionally, we are taught to expect rewards for doing good deeds, as parents and teachers alike commonly utilize reward systems to encourage kids to “do what is right” from a very early age. Receiving acknowledgment for doing a good deed isn’t inherently bad and can be helpful in the development of young minds, but we should not expect to be rewarded for acting with good intent for all of our lives. Instead, we should treat people and the world with compassion, patience, and generosity because it is the moral way to live. Rather than solely focusing on our suffering, we have the potential to broaden our positive impact on the world by striving for the betterment of life for all beings, not just ourselves or those immediately around us.

Ultimately, living under the assumption that there is always some higher power—whether it be godly or universal—that is judging and pulling strings to alter our lives based on our past actions can be unnerving. This way of thinking is not grounded, as it does not encourage people to live and maintain intention in the present moment. The Western interpretation of karma ties our values to fear, while the Eastern Buddhist definition reminds us of the endless potential of the buddha-nature that we all have within us.

At face value, there is nothing wrong with the message “what goes around comes around,” as it encourages people to treat others with kindness. If this concept inspires people to do good things, that should be celebrated. Nevertheless, it is essential to acknowledge that this way of thinking is problematic because it creates unrealistic expectations for people. For example, suppose one were to carry out some moral action with the expectation that the universe will reward them. In that case, they might become overly frustrated and upset when they inevitably face times of struggle, as they believe that the universe “owes” them good fortune. This could lead to emotional hardship and the pessimistic belief that because there is no tangible, universal reward for being a good person, there is no point in prioritizing ethical action.

Additionally, it is not uncommon to hear Western people facing troublesome times ask, “What have I done to deserve this?” They may even begin to criticize themselves for past actions and try to assign blame to their past self for their current suffering. This entirely removes one from the present moment and is ultimately destructive. In a moment of suffering, it would be more productive to acknowledge one’s present conditions, what one can and cannot control, and then continue to act with intention in the present moment with those factors considered. Finally, it is necessary to remember that if one carries out unwholesome karma, this does not make one a bad person who deserves suffering. Many believe that karma represents the repercussions of one’s actions when it is actually the intentional action itself. While it is important to learn and grow from unwholesome actions from the past, one’s practice should revolve around compassion and presence rather than a fear of cosmic punishment.

Westerners often say that they “believe in karma,” as in, they believe in this spectral system of punishment and reward. When one truly understands what karma is in the Buddhist sense through its origins, one might realize that karma isn’t something to “believe in;” it just is. We do not live in an actionless world. Thus, karma is inescapable. What’s more, we are fully responsible for our own karma. To some, this might be an intimidating realization, but the reality of the potential our intentional actions hold should be empowering. While there can be benefits to the “what goes around comes around” way of thinking, Western people would benefit from an improved understanding of Eastern teachings on karma.

We can achieve spiritual liberation not as a reward that is given by an external divine agent, but rather one that is a consequence of the accumulation of our own well-intentioned actions. Much of the karma we have carried out will not come back around and “get back at” us in a stereotypical way, but this does not diminish the immense weight of our actions. Whether or not we see or experience the consequences of our karma firsthand, we always carry the responsibility for them. There are many ways in which we can transform our karma. In the same way that we develop habits of harmful action, speech, and thought, we can use a present-moment awareness to cultivate wholesome karma. Through awareness and practice, we can increase our karma grounded in compassion, patience, gratitude, and wisdom. This can help to oppose the cycle of bad karmic habits or unwholesome action. When we practice observing our patterns and conditioning, we can cultivate wholesome karma. Fundamentally, karma is about personal responsibility!

The universe does not grant you any life or treatment that you “deserve,” and we are all, ultimately, the doers of our own actions. The future is not set in stone. Karma is a valuable reminder that anyone can change their life for the better right now by reforming the intentions behind their actions. Karma is not universal, it is strictly personal. So, with all of this in mind, what kind of karmic action do you want to begin contributing to the world today?

References

Thanissaro Bhikkhu, trans. 2013. “Nibbedhika Sutta: Penetrative” (AN 6.63): http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an06/an06.063.than.html.

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Charles
Charles
1 month ago

This is not just a ‘western’ understanding of karma. There are numerous stories, told by Asian teachers, along the lines of “this woman is poor and ugly because in a past life she was greedy and vain.” I suggest that the vast majority of non-Western Buddhists also think of Karma in this tit-for-tat way.