The multiple definitions of karma have been on my mind today. I’ve been seeing a lot of acts of kindness as of late, and participating in a few myself. And, for some reason, that keeps bringing to mind the life lessons that I’ve had around karma. It might be a bit long winded, but let me explain.
I had grown up and become an adult believing that I knew the definition of karma. I believed that to mean that everything that I do will come back to me. That same reasoning plays against those of a negative disposition, that everything they do will come back to them. A quick google search for the definition of karma (below) brings up the following from Oxford. What I didn’t realize at the time, is that there is another definition. While similar, the other definition is a bit broader.
Oxord: kar·ma / ˈkärmə / noun – (in Hinduism and Buddhism) the sum of a person’s actions in this and previous states of existence, viewed as deciding their fate in future existences. INFORMAL – destiny or fate, following as effect from cause.
For a relatively short time, a couple of years that ended in 2015, I was spending time with a friend named Ross. Ross had spent five years as a Buddhist Monk in Northern Thailand. He had a fascinating way of turning deep, philosophical conversations into light and fun episodes of learning. He taught me a number of things without actually ‘teaching’ me anything. More importantly, he lit a spark in me. He lit a spark that would take me to Bangkok to spend three weeks continuing that learning.
In 2016, I decided to go to Bangkok to do some research into Buddhism. Having discussed this with Ross ahead of time, I knew of a way to do this while still remaining on the fringes of organized religion. If you know anything about Buddhists, it’s that they don’t preach. They simply ‘be’, and invite you to ‘be’ also. No expectations, no converting. While that is one of Buddhisms endearing qualities, it can make it a bit more difficult to learn. Many Buddhists interpret the ‘No Preaching’ directive to mean that one doesn’t discuss their Buddhism unless it’s with another Buddhist. So, that can make it a bit tough to learn.
Before I went, I contacted a guide and interpreter. But, not just any guide and interpreter, one that was born and raised as a Buddhist in Bangkok. One that came from a long line of Buddhists. She, over the course of three weeks, took over where Ross had left off. By the time I returned, my world view had been turned on it’s axis a wee bit. Not wholesale changes, but changes nonetheless, in how I viewed things.
Above, the informal definition of Karma is the one that I hear most North Americans using, “destiny or fate, following as effect from cause”. In other words, I do nice things because I want nice things done to me. Or, at least, I don’t do bad things because I don’t want bad things done to me. I suspect that the other definition above, is more common in Hinduism; “the sum of a person’s actions in this and previous states of existence, viewed as deciding their fate in future existences.” I have not had many in depth conversations with Hindus, but the small amount of light reading that I have done on the topic points in that direction.
Both of those definitions seem flawed, from a Buddhist perspective. Buddhists do believe that karma, and eventually enlightenment, do have a direct link to reincarnation. Buddhists also believe that suffering comes from expectation and craving. Both the formal and the informal definition of karma above imply a payback of some kind. An expectation. The formal definition expects a better reincarnation experience in the next life. The informal definition expects a pay back within this lifetime. Both of those thoughts seem to include transactions that include an expectation of payback. Even following the Buddhist belief that karma is a step along the path to enlightenment, transactions and their inherent expectations do not seem kind or enlightened. Since neither of those definitions seem very Buddhist to me, let’s introduce a third definition.
First Ross in 2015, and then Thip (my Buddhist guide and interpreter) in 2016, described karma in a similar way that is different than any definition that I had previously heard. Their definition was closer to “I act this way because that’s the kind of world that I choose to live in”. Now, before you roll your eyes and dismiss that as a difference without a distinction, bear with me. My first consideration is that this definition does not have any expectation for the future. It’s a statement of the here and now, as in “I am creating the world that I want to live in”. It’s a statement of intent, not an expectation. Their version of karma is also true of both virtuous or evil behavior. It’s a statement of responsibility that your behavior has a direct and immediate impact on the world that you live in. The world that you are creating everyday through your actions. Here is an example of what I mean.
Today I performed a random act of kindness. The kind of thing that we all do during these times of crisis. I had previously joined a Facebook group called “Vancouver Island – Pandemic Find Help/Offer Help.” It’s a group that has been started for people who need help to be able to connect with those that can give help. Arguably the best possible function of social media, and the internet in general. A social worker in Sidney had a hamper package that she was trying to get to a disadvantaged single-parent family in Victoria. Neither the social worker nor the family had the ability to travel to the other. So, I took care of it for them.
Bearing in mind that I live alone, have a decant car, a few bucks for gas and nothing to do on a Sunday morning. It cost me very little to make a difference in someone’s life. The question becomes; why did I do that?
Formal Definition: Did I do the act of kindness in the hopes of being reincarnated as something better than a dung beetle (nothing against dung beetles – we all have our role to play in the world)? No. While Buddhists do believe that karma is one element that (eventually) leads to enlightenment and reincarnation, they do not believe in direct transactions that provide payback from ‘the universe’. Sorry kids, but the universe does not provide.
Informal Definition: Did I do that in the hopes that someone will return the favor when I’m a single parent that is stranded and in need of a hamper package? No. I have little faith that these kinds of things come back in a one-for-one scenario.
Both of the definitions of karma at the top of this article are exactly the kind of thinking that Buddhism tries to caution away from. These definitions of karma are in direct opposition to one of Buddhism’s central thoughts; expectation is the root of suffering.
Instead, let’s take a different tact. In providing that service to those that needed it, I was creating the kind of world that I choose to live in. I create the world that I choose to live in everyday through my actions, by ‘being’ in the here and now. Not hopes, not dreams, not expectations. Consider karma as the immediate impact that you have on your world …. our world. Don’t expect kindness, be kindness. That’s true karma.