Karma: that word that gets thrown around a lot.

People talk about “good” karma versus “bad” karma, or “your” karma versus “mine.”

But despite the term’s popularity, it seems like everybody has a different idea about what it actually means. If karma is truly one of the Buddha’s most important teachings, as he himself repeatedly emphasized, then to follow in his footsteps, we need to be clear about its definition.

The Problems with “Agricultural” Karma

Probably one of the most popular misunderstandings about Buddhist Karma is the idea that everything that happens to us is our karma. If we win the lottery or have an attractive partner, it’s because we performed good deeds in the past—we have “good” karma. If we get hit by a truck or our partner cheats on us, it’s because we misbehaved and have “bad” karma. And, of course, what we do now will determine our future results. Let’s just call this the agricultural view of karma: we reap what we sow.

So, what’s wrong with this idea? Well, whether we’re Buddhist or not, it creates lots of intellectual problems.

The first is that believing we reap what we sow simply seems to contradict a great deal of our experience. We act with kindness, maybe dropping a few coins into a homeless man’s can, only to have him call us a cheap yuppie. Or our chronically underperforming co-worker who spends most of the time surfing Facebook and pilfering office supplies gets a promotion.

In other words, the wicked very often seem to prosper, even thrive, while the good seem to get a goodly portion of crap.

How can this apparent contradiction be resolved? Proponents of agricultural karma will often use time as a rationalization. They will claim that just as a seed takes time to fruit, so do the fruits of your actions take time to ripen. Certainly, this helps. However, some things in life are still hard to explain.

Why, for example, do innocent infants die? They’ve barely had enough time to learn how to digest food properly, let alone perform some wicked deed. (Of course, we need to leave Stewie from Family Guy out of this equation, as well as the idea of the infant proposed by famous psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, who viewed it as a viscous and greedy succubus bent on completely draining the mother of her vital energy.)

I’m sure you’ve already come up with the answer: we must be dealing with more than one lifetime. In fact, the claim is that we have an infinite number of lives extending into the past. With this explanation, all the rewards and atrocities of life fit together like a skillful game of Tetris. We have an account for why infants die, or why we can be completely loving and faithful to our partner, only to end up alone; it’s just our karmic comeuppance from cheating in a previous life.

Sure, we still might feel unhappy because our partner is now dating a princess from Bhutan, but at least we can mourn with a sense of ease, knowing there is some order to events in the universe, and that these personal painful events are just the fruits of old, bad karma. We can also rest easy because in the future, we’ll also reap the rewards of our fidelity—it just might take time.

If we stop here, then all is well.

However, if we push a little further beyond this logical seal, then we confront what we call “the administrative nightmare.” How can all those good and bad deeds possibly be kept track of? And not just in one lifetime, but across infinite lifetimes? What conceivable cosmic ledger could account for all those transactions? It seems like an administrative impossibility to coordinate that vast amount of information and organize events so everything unfolds correctly, and justice gets served to the right people, at the right time, in just the right way. The organizational details are so complex that it leads people to say that karma is some infinitely subtle, ineffable cosmic order, inaccessible to even the most sophisticated minds.

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