Karma

Continuing on with my thoughts about Buddhist principles, it’s time for one of the biggies: karma.

Most Westerners grew up in an environment strongly influenced by monotheistic notions. This is true even for people not brought up to be “religious”. Thus, many Westerners see karma as some external source of “divine” justice doling out punishments and rewards based on the things you do. If, for example, you hurt somebody, some external force of fate will soon hurt you back in order to balance the books.

But this is a crude and materialistic idea. It requires a godlike something to maintain an ongoing ledger and to have the power of manipulating the universe to smack down people who deserve it. It also tacitly requires something like eternal life or reincarnation to make it work…because let’s face it, a lot of truly nasty people live fairly comfortable lives, whereas other people who haven’t done much wrong can be subject to horrible suffering. The only way to justify this with conventional notions of karma is to say that what you go through now may be influenced by something you did several lifetimes ago…and if you do bad things now, you’ll eventually get punished, maybe a dozen lifetimes down the line.

To be fair, this is exactly what some Buddhists believe. They would say that karma may not get you in this life, but it will hit you hard in the next or the one after that. However, I have trouble believing such an idea. I have trouble with reincarnation in general, even though people I respect completely believe in it.

So let me suggest a different take on karma: one based on plain old neurology.

When you choose to do something, you strengthen neural pathways in your brain so that the thing becomes easier to do again. When you repeatedly choose not to do something, the existing pathways in your brain for that action will gradually weaken.

That’s it. That’s the mechanism of karma. Nothing external. All internal.

When, for example, you give in to anger, you strengthen your mental pathways for giving in to anger. You make it more likely that you’ll give in again, with all the consequences that might follow. On the other hand, if you don’t give in to anger, you strengthen your ability to resist anger. Your “give in to anger” pathways will slowly weaken.

This doesn’t mean you’ll never get angry. It means you’re less likely to act on your anger. The Sanskrit word “karma” literally means “action”. The actions that you do or don’t take will strengthen or weaken your patterns of behavior.

Remember that in Buddhism, pain and suffering are two different things. You can feel pain without suffering, and you can suffer even when you aren’t in pain.

Greed, for example, is a cause of suffering because it’s an unwholesome fixation on getting something. You can’t stop thinking about it. You need it…and even if you get it, you want more. That’s suffering. And giving in to greed just makes things worse. It makes you more likely to give in to greed again in future…which leads to more fixation and more suffering.

Resisting greed helps you resist greed in future. Even better is cultivating more wholesome patterns of thought and behavior (good karma). If you counteract greed with generosity and feelings of gratitude for what you already have, you reduce any suffering from current greed and make future bouts of greed less likely.

So karma isn’t imposed from some external force. It’s a set of patterns you’ve built up inside you over the course of a lifetime. Unwholesome patterns make you fixate and suffer; wholesome ones loosen you up and (gradually) free you from fixation.

The ideal is eventually to have no karma: no automatic patterns of behavior running your life. You may still have unpleasant experiences—that’s part of what it means to be human, including your eventual death—but they just are what they are. You don’t add extra suffering to whatever pain comes along.

[The picture is the so-called “endless knot” often used to symbolize karma. By en:User:Rickjpelleg, first uploaded to en.wikipedia on 20:13, 28 October 2005 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.]