In response to a request that I discuss the Buddhist concept of karma, I will begin with the category of Right View on the Noble Eightfold Path. Firstly, Right View entails a thorough comprehension of the Four Noble Truths and of the karmic consequences of our thoughts, words and deeds. Ultimately, Right View involves a full understanding of the entire Dharma or teachings of the Buddha and other sages.
But for practical purposes, I’ll emphasize two kinds of Right View.
One is mundane Right View, which is concerned with principles that affect our level of happiness or suffering in daily life. The other is superior Right View, leading to liberation from all worldly preoccupations. For those of us who might need a bit more practice before we’re ready for enlightenment, let’s look at mundane Right View, which includes the concept of karma.
Karma means volitional action that impels and organizes the mind and body towards a goal. According to Buddhist philosophy, each moment of our lives is not determined by luck or chance, but it is a result of previous thoughts, words or deeds. The Buddha taught that every volitional action has consequences. If I unknowingly step on an ant, my act does not have karmic results because it was unintentional. What matters is the ethical quality of our actions.
Karmic law works on the simple principle that unwholesome actions ripen into suffering, and wholesome actions into happiness.
To recognize this principle is to hold mundane Right View, affirming that people can choose their actions freely, within limits set by their conditions. At any moment, we have an opportunity to wake up and to let go of unskillful thoughts, words or deeds.
Karma does not imply condemning ourselves or others who face suffering. It’s not about “deserving” judgment, but about understanding what causes and what diminishes suffering.
Whenever we recognize pain within or around us, we can open our hearts to meet it with love, alleviating suffering through acceptance of the present reality. Understanding karma can empower us to bring forth what’s best inside us to transform ourselves and our future.
Just as seeds germinate and ripen only under certain conditions—such as light, warmth, and water—so does karma. The results of our actions depend on particular conditions for fruition, and we can’t anticipate when these conditions will occur.
Sometimes the results of our actions are immediate. If I smile and greet someone on my morning walk, the person usually responds with a friendly reply. If I speak impatiently at a checkout counter, the sales clerk may react with tension, and what could have been a pleasant interaction becomes rushed and impersonal.
Other times the consequences of our actions are not evident until a later point in our lives, or even after our death. In the late 1980s I volunteered on a creative arts delegation in León, Nicaragua. The couple who housed me became my friends, and years later they named their second daughter after me. Mark and I attended the baptism of little Virginia, and, as her godmother, I helped support her through school. Now she has finished college with a degree in psychology, and she is studying Guided Imagery and Music in a training that I conduct twice a year near Bogotá, Colombia. After so many unanticipated events have transpired, I imagine that this international connection between our families will unfold with surprising karmic consequences long after I die.
Mundane Right View of karma and its fruits provides a rationale for engaging in wholesome actions, but by itself it does not lead to liberation.
It is possible for someone to accept the law of karma and yet have only worldly goals.
Superior Right View, which leads to spiritual liberation, entails a profound comprehension of the Four Noble Truths and the natural laws that increase or diminish suffering.
The Eightfold Path starts with a conceptual understanding about the significance of these truths in our lives.
The Path reaches a climax with a direct intuition of those same truths, fully comprehended.
Thus Right View forms both the beginning and the culmination of the way to end suffering.