Wondering About Karma



Should a person do good, let him do it again and again. Let him find pleasure therein, for blissful is the accumulation of good.
— The Buddha, Dhammapada, verse 118

When I was a writer for a major multinational corporation, I often had to address new issues as reporters and government officials raised questions. Often, there was no company position yet, so by writing drafts and getting feedback, I created one.

Now, I write entirely for myself, but the same process applies. I read, think and write, and review my conclusions by checking the published works of authorities I respect. Then once I publish a blog post, the comments and questions from thoughtful readers help me formulate my own belief system and sometimes result in another post.

Thanks especially to comments and questions from fellow bloggers Karen Allendoerfer and Amie Zor, I’m ready to tackle what for me is the most challenging aspect of Buddhism: karma.

iStock_000079954951_SmallIn everyday Western use, karma simply means what goes around comes around, but the Buddha lived in a time with widespread belief in rebirth. The karma he talked about has been taken to mean merit or demerit that the individual carries from one life to another. Spiritual leaders of the Buddha’s time had no other way to explain the illness and death of an infant, for example, so they believed it was bad karma from a former life.

Let me take the subject piece by piece:

If the self is an illusion, what is it that gets rewarded or punished? The Buddha often spoke in metaphors, and I’m not sure he ever quite said that the self is an illusion. But he believed that the individual self is impermanent and part of something bigger, a non-duality. Dzogchen Buddhists call the true self the heart-mind as opposed to the thought-mind. Other branches see it differently, but somewhere inside everyone is a pure self that is part of the universal Buddha-hood, or what some call the Amida Buddha.

Did the Buddha invent the idea of karma? Something like karma existed before the Buddha, but one received karma for performing the right ceremonies or accomplishing good works. The Buddha detested ceremony, and while he appreciated good works, he also elevated the importance of sincere good intentions. So if you honestly want the best for others, you get good karma even if your efforts fail to get the results you want. That doesn’t mean you’re rewarded for ignorance (“duh, I didn’t intend to piss you off”). It’s not an excuse for halfhearted failure, but a reward to the honestly compassionate. Compassion, after all, is s state of being, not a state of doing.

What happens to the good and bad karma? This gets sticky for me because I’m not comfortable with the literal idea of rebirth. And I’m not comfortable explaining away an infant’s agony by laying it on a past life the infant can’t remember or understand. I do believe in a form of afterlife that might involve an occasional rebirth (as with some great Tibetan lamas), but I think the afterlife takes other forms as well — other ways those who have died influence the world in real time. I wonder if the Buddha had lived in another culture, in which rebirth was not emphasized, whether he would have expressed himself in other terms. I do know that, in the quote at the start of this post, he portrays doing good as its own reward.

What about nirvana? In the Buddha’s time, the ultimate reward was to escape the cycle of death and rebirth. The Buddha was most interested in giving people the tools to escape unnecessary suffering. He believed in cause and effect. Once one understands cause and effect, trains his or her mind to avoid the clinging that feeds the cycle of cause and effect, and lives ethically with compassion, then that person becomes enlightened. I’m content to leave it there. I have taken the Bodhisattva Pledge, meaning that I’ll keep working for the enlightenment of all even if I receive a get-out-of-jail-free card. If I can live on in bliss by doing good, that’s acceptable to me.

I’ll take it.

— Mel Pine (Fearless Lotus)


NOTE: I’ve been slipping from my schedule of an original blog post a day. My wife and I are moving in three days, so life is hectic, as well as impermanent. You may not see much more from me for a few days, but I’ll be back on track in a week or so.


Copyright 2016 © Mel Harkrader Pine

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Thanks! I appreciate your explanation of the self in Buddhism as impermanent rather than an illusion. I had never heard it expressed quite that way before and your way makes sense.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. melhpine says:

      A lot of the non-self stuff comes from Zen long after the Buddha’s time.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. tiramit says:

    Thanks for this intriguing post. The good and bad karma in the rebirth thing gets sticky for me too. The Pali term for rebirth-consciousness is patisandhi – vinnana. Disclaimer: I’m not a scholar so the exact details may not be correct. I’ve heard it described as a ‘spark’ of consciousness that passes from one life to the next. Here’s a summary of the Wiki reference:
    ‘Rebirth in Buddhism is the doctrine that the evolving consciousness or stream of consciousness (upon death), becomes one of the contributing causes for the arising of a new person. The consciousness in the new person is neither identical nor entirely different from that in the deceased but the two form a causal continuum or stream.’
    I’d call it the fundamental characteristics, tendencies and how that fits in a particular context…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. melhpine says:

      Thanks, Tiramit. Good additional light.


  3. Peace Paul says:

    Aloha Mel,

    I think that one of the things we in the West need to watch out for is this idea that Karma, or really the fruits of previous karma, are rewards or punishments. I know that it is sometimes articulated this way in Buddhists texts, but ultimately that is a lesser teaching. However, in the West we have a strong tradition of a Judging God, which is really not part of Buddhism. Given our background it is easy for us to replace the Judging God with Judging Karma, which would be a mistake. Karma (action) builds our life, moment by moment. Certain actions may lead to more suffering and others to less suffering. Birth in a human body is potentially a great opportunity but also fraught with the many sufferings of existence. The child who dies young is not being punished for their previous actions. It is just that in this world, there is Dukkha. There is pain and suffering and death and sickness and tragedy. To be born in this world is to die. None of us can know when we will die. For many it is far to soon and totally undeserved. Others suffer horribly, being born in war torn areas, or areas without sufficient food or water. It is so very sad. We could make this world a wonderful, supportive, and sustaining environment for the many beings being born each day, but instead we have created a world with much needless suffering. This world is the fruit of our collective karma.

    Namo Amida Bu!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Good insight in discerning Buddha’s preachings. My take on Karma based on Hindu philosophy –

    Liked by 1 person

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