Popular Misconceptions of Karma

Karma means “deed” or “action” in Sanskrit. However, action is not substituted for karma, as karma carries much more weight than the simple understanding found in action. Karma is one of the most popular and perhaps least understood concepts in Buddhism. Karmic actions can be behaviors as well as thoughts and emotions.

There are multiple ways to consider karma. One way is “local” karma; actions in the present (including mental actions) have an impact on future experiences. Another is “remote” karma; actions performed in this lifetime have an impact on future rebirths. Remote karma, of course, depends on the idea of rebirth, which may be an alien idea to many people in the Western world. From a scientific perspective, there is no evidence for rebirth. However, your own direct experience can reveal the working of local karma. What you think now will affect how you feel later. What you do now will bear fruit at some future point in time. This is different from a universal balance, that is, “you reap what you sow,” which is a common misconception of karma.

Consider local karma like this: You can't kill someone in the morning and then have a peaceful meditation in the afternoon. Here are some of the most common misconceptions about karma.

Misconception: Karma Is Retaliation from an Outside

Force How many times have you heard someone say, “She has bad karma,” referring to someone who has had a run of bad luck. In the West, karma has often been interpreted as equal to the principle of “an eye for an eye” — the retaliatory principle that you are punished with the same punishment you inflict on another. However, this is a misconception and misunderstanding of the Buddhist meaning of karma. According to the Buddha's teaching, you are not made to pay for past mistakes, nor are you rewarded for your past good deeds — but you are, in fact, what you do or intend to do. More to the point, karma is the process by which your actions shape your life.

Since the Buddha did not acknowledge the presence of a theistic power, karma would not be associated with an external, objective judge. In the words of Shantideva (an eighth-century Buddhist teacher), “Suffering is a consequence of one's own action, not a retribution inflicted by an external power…We are the authors of our own destiny; and being the authors, we are ultimately…free.”

Misconception: Karma Involves All Actions

Karma only involves intentional actions. Therefore, if you were to step accidentally on a spider, you would not invoke karma. You unintentionally stepped on the spider. There was no intent to hurt the spider.

However, if you decide beforehand that you are going to kill the damn spider that is living in the garage and stomp on him with malice aforethought, you will experience the karmic ramification of an action that is laced with hatred and aversion (remember, one of Three Poisons). If you understand karma as one moment conditioning future moments, you can see the interdependent chain of cause and effect. When your mind is clouded by aggression, this will generate particular effects. When your mind is occupied by peace, this will generate its own particular effects. This effect will be on your own mind moments and on your behavior that, in turn, affects others.

“It is mental volition, O monks, that I call karma. Having willed, one acts through body, speech or mind.” — The Buddha

It might be helpful to set aside notions of “good” and “bad” karma because this distinction just creates confusion and reinforces misconceptions. Instead, think of skillful and unskillful actions. When remembering that actions include behavior and also mental actions (thoughts, feelings, and images that you intentionally engage with and nurture), you will discover that certain actions lead to beneficial results, that is, you feel good and others around you feel good.

If you walk down the street smiling, you will feel good and others around you will feel good. This is acting skillfully (“good karma”). You will also discover that certain other actions lead to harmful results, that is, you feel bad and others around you feel bad. If you yell and criticize and kick the dog, you will be lost in feeling bad, later experience regret, and adversely impact those around you. This is acting unskillfully (“bad karma”). Acting from the Three Poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion is unskillful, while acting from their opposites — generosity, kindness, and wisdom — is skillful.

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