Forum: How Does Karma Really Work?

Norman Fischer, Robin Kornman, and Ajahn Amaro get to the bottom of this challenging question that baffles so many Westerners.

Andy Karr
1 March 2007

Few Buddhist ideas resonate more, yet produce more dissonance for Western dharma practitioners, than karma. It’s easy to feel that the laws of karma are at work when you see the chickens coming home to roost for someone with an outsized ego. They had it coming. But we are still waiting to see the Harvard Business School case study of how Bill Gates’ extraordinary generosity in previous lives caused his unbelievable wealth in this life.

Karma is a Sanskrit word that means “action.” The teachings on karma are about action and its results, cause and effect. On the cause side of the equation, intention or motivation is crucial. The seminal text The Treasury of Abhidharma by Vasubandhu (fifth century) says that karma is intention and the acts that flow out of intention. If you worry about the karmic consequences of all the dead bugs splattered on your windshield, don’t. When there is no intention to cause harm, no negative karmic seeds are planted.

On the effect side of the equation, the cardinal rule is that karma never fades away. The results of an action may not mature for many lifetimes, but when appropriate conditions are encountered, the results inevitably arise. And they always arise for the one who performed the action.

This is where things get tricky. “Instant karma” makes intuitive sense. We can understand how being mean and angry makes us unpleasant, distorts our features, and causes other people to avoid us. And we can see how disturbed states of mind cause accidents to happen. On the other hand, when we are told that a dear friend’s cancer is the ripened result of negative actions performed in previous lives, we don’t know what to make of it. The problem is, we can’t see the past or future lives and we can’t prove they exist with scientific instruments or psychological theories. Our rationalist and materialistic instincts don’t want to go there. We just don’t know.

To really “know” what karma means, it helps to consider what “knowing” means. The Buddhist theory of knowledge says that we can know things in three ways: through direct perception, by inference, or by relying on trusted authority. Perception works for manifest phenomena, the things we feel and can bump into. In that case, we know something because “we see it with our own eyes.” Inference works for hidden phenomena. We know “where there is smoke, there is fire.” Trusted authority works for extremely hidden phenomena. The workings of karma are extremely hidden. To know them, we rely on trusted authority. Trusted authority is not blind faith, because trust is based on the authority’s track record. We may well regard the Buddha as trustworthy because we have tested his teachings and found them to be reliable.

Nevertheless, even if we start out by taking something on authority, it helps to inquire, and karma is worth inquiring about. It raises deep questions, and our panelists try to tackle such questions. If there is no self, who receives the karmic fruit? If everything is produced by karma, is everything predetermined? What about free will? These questions go to the core of Buddhadharma: the relationship between bondage and liberation.

Karmic cause and effect is driven by compulsion, we learn. It is made up of chain reactions, one thing leading to another in the twelve links of dependent origination that take us from ignorance to old age and death and back around again, and again, and again. Relentless pressure endlessly turns the wheel of samsara. But, as our panelists explain, we can find gaps in the momentum, and in those gaps we can make choices. But does Buddhism view choice in precisely the same way as other ethical systems and modes of thought?

Even more basically, our panelists point out that karma depends on ignorance, specifically the ignorance that clings to “I” and “mine,” or ego and its projections. When this ignorance is overcome, karmic cause and effect is like cause and effect in a dream when you realize you’re dreaming. It appears, but it is powerless. From the Buddhist point of view, free will is a contradiction. “Will” means the delusion of ego. “Free” means freedom from the compulsion that arises from this ignorance.

Buddhadharma: First, would each of you like to describe your understanding of karma and its importance in the Buddhist path?

Ajahn Amaro: The basic approach in the Theravada is that karma is based on intention. There’s a frequently quoted passage where the Buddha says, “Intention is karma.” Having will, we create karma through body, speech, and mind. The intention is what creates the potency behind the action. The word karma simply means “action,” but usually when people talk about karma in common usage, they mean karma and its result—action and the result of action. The technical word for the result is vipaka, the fruit of the action. So, it’s the things we intend and then act upon that are the key creators of karma. Those actions arising from our intention that happened in the past, we then experience as fruit in the present moment.

Often, though, people think of karma in a very fatalistic way or deterministic way. They’ll say, “It’s my karma,” by which they mean it had to happen that way. That view is antithetical to the Buddhist teachings. The effects of past actions can cause a particular tendency, but the ripening of karma is never fixed. Over and over again in the Pali canon, the Buddha tries to counteract the view that life is created according to an inescapable, determined pattern. Karma preconditions our present experience, but what we do with that is entirely based on the choices we make—and the degree of wisdom or good-heartedness, or greed, hatred, and delusion, we bring to our experience in the present moment.

Robin Kornman: Yes, karma has nothing to do with fate, predestination, providence, or destiny. In the West, there’s a tendency to hold to a religious belief of one’s destiny. Karma has nothing at all to do with that kind of thinking. Quite the contrary, karma means that the world could be operating in a terribly impersonal way, not in a way that gives your life meaning through destiny.

I’ve been comparing notes with an Hasidic Jew lately, and I keep insisting that karma is the reason we have an ethical system in Buddhism. If you didn’t have a teaching on karma, you wouldn’t be a Buddhist, no matter how much you believed in the Buddha otherwise, because without karma we would become nihilists ethically. Karma is what tells us what’s good and bad; nothing is inherently good or inherently bad, but some things lead naturally to states of suffering and some things lead naturally away from suffering, and that’s how you define good or bad karma.

So there’s no ledger anywhere, so to speak, only cause and effect.

Robin Kornman: That’s right. Cause and effect creates the equivalent of what Westerners would call responsibility. Only Buddhists don’t operate ethically in terms of responsibility the way Westerners do, in my view.

Norman Fischer: Each of us, given our tradition and personalities and the students we encounter, will emphasize different points with respect to karma. Here’s how I often put it. Because of our intentions and actions of the past, we find ourselves in a given situation in every moment. A great deal of that is due to our personal deeds and thoughts in this lifetime. Some of it is due to a given condition that predates this life. For example, I didn’t create myself. In any moment, then, I’ve got a determined situation in which I am fully responsible to act.

From one point of view, you could say there’s some determinism in karma and also some responsibility. Buddhism points to that place of responsibility. We cultivate the past so that we can be clear and responsible in our actions going forward. The slogan I often use with people is, “The situation you’re in is not your fault, but it’s absolutely your responsibility to take care of it going forward.” And then they ask, “What do you mean it’s not my fault? If I did actions in the past that led me to this place, how can you say it’s not my fault?” I respond that the person who did those things in the past is no longer here. However, the person in this present moment has a huge responsibility to take volitional action from this moment forward. The Buddha taught a path of action and responsibility in a very realistic way.

Robin Kornman: For my part, I’m careful not to use that word “responsibility.” I feel people tend to associate that with the Western religious notion of responsibility: you’re responsible to God to keep his laws, and therefore if you don’t keep them, you feel a sense of religious fear and awe and guilt. There is a whole range of emotions that comes with that kind of responsibility. Buddhism does not support that mental complex.

Norman Fischer: You have a point, but I don’t find that the word “responsibility” comes with all of that baggage for me.

Does a person who has a profound understanding of karma, a Buddhist who takes vows and undertakes commitments, perceive him- or herself as having choice, free will, in the simplest understanding of that phrase?

Norman Fischer: Every moment is a choice.

Robin Kornman: Yes, I agree. And yet, as my teacher used to say, if you see the situation clearly, you are faced with the choicelessness of one path. I don’t think he was talking about free will. He was just saying that most situations are choiceless, when you realize what your alternatives are.

Ajahn Amaro: I would agree with that.

Norman Fischer: You could say every moment is a moment of choice, and if you really see clearly, there’s only one choice to make.

Ajahn Amaro: And that one choiceless choice changes millisecond by millisecond.

Norman Fischer: While it’s always the same thing, it’s always different moment by moment.

Ajahn Amaro: It’s interesting that both free will and determinism depend on the idea of a me that either has a predetermined future or a me that is exercising free will. But when there is enlightened mind, it doesn’t really sound like free will, because it’s ever so slightly dictated by the completely open heart responding to the way things are, moment by moment.

Norman Fischer: Western thought presupposes concepts and problems and issues that simply dissolve from the Buddhist point of view. Free will versus determinism—from a Buddhist point of view there is no such issue. But it’s hard to bend our understanding to discuss something like karma in terms that don’t exist in our own tradition, which comes from a completely different worldview.

Ajahn Amaro: Yes, the question is posed in the wrong way.

Robin Kornman: Nevertheless, perhaps we can find points of connection. The simplest teaching on karma I know is pratityasamutpada, dependent origination, as expressed in the chain of the nidanas. There are gaps in the chain, when the next act is not determined, which is what makes enlightenment possible.

Ajahn Amaro: In the Theravada, they particularly point to the gap between feeling and craving.

Norman Fischer: The choice gap.

Ajahn Amaro: The difference between “I like” and “I want.”

Norman Fischer: Karma is the crucial teaching in Buddhism, because there is cause and effect rather than determinism.

Robin Kornman: Or the moral strictures of an all-powerful being.

Norman Fischer: It presents the possibility that we can transform our life and the lives around us. The Buddha taught that we’re all empowered to do that.

You mean karma is not bad news. [laughter]

Ajahn Amaro: No, it’s very good news.

Robin Kornman: It’s important for us to figure out how leading a life regulated by the laws of karma makes you different from a person who lives according to a moral code. That’s very hard to pin down. It looks like we’re all the same: Christianity has a moral code, and we Buddhists have laws of karma. But there is some subtle difference in why Buddhists do an action. We have a sense of the impending vipaka, the results, that would occur—that’s what guides our action, and that is different from doing it out of a sense of morality.

Ajahn Amaro: As Robin alluded to, the buddhadharma is not the word of the absolute being spoken in the world; it’s a collection of methods and encouragements. For that matter, I think the Buddha is unique in encouraging people not to believe things simply because they’re in scripture or because a trusted teacher tells you so. Rather, you are instructed to try them out for yourself. Far from being a revealed religion, where you are subject to the commands of an authority, it’s an experimental religion, a path of individual investigation. Through exploring the laws of cause and effect, the Buddhist practitioner comes to see that if he or she behaves in a certain way, certain things will result. If the practitioner does one thing, the mind is agitated. If another, the mind is settled and clear. That’s cause and effect.

Norman Fischer: Buddhism lacks the strong parental flavor of many of the theistic traditions. It deals directly with motivation, which is an important point with respect to the notion of free will. Why do we do something? To be in accord with the parental god’s wishes, which are absolute? In Buddhism, though there may be a guide and there may be a code of conduct, you do what you do because you come to see through your own experience that if you behave in one way, you get one result, and if you behave in another way, you get another result. That accounts for the emotional and motivational differences between the buddhadharma and Western theistic paths of ethical conduct.

Other ethical systems are based on the notion of an ongoing person who is, shall we say, “responsible.” Such an ongoing person, it seems, also continues after death, and perhaps eternally. An ethical system that doesn’t have an ongoing person at its core is shocking to many people. Such shock has caused some people within Buddhism to simply sidestep the issue and say, “Well, I don’t really know about or believe in karma and rebirth. I’m just trying to be a good person and follow the Buddha’s path.” As teachers of Buddhism, how do you address that conundrum? How do you teach an ethical system that doesn’t require a person?

Ajahn Amaro: This is not a new issue. It’s been going on since the time of the Buddha. It does seem counterintuitive. If the body, feelings, perceptions, consciousness, and so forth are not-self, who is it that receives the results of the karma made by this non-self? It requires a wisdom approach—a meditative, contemplative approach—to see how that might work.

If you consider the teachings on not-self, there is a subtle presumption that there is a doer, a meditator, shall we say. This meditator examines every perception, every thought, every memory, and every action and intention. However, when the meditator looks for the doer, the agent, it can’t be found, which is the very point of the process of meditation. People often have that insight when practicing vipassana meditation. They hear the sound of a dog barking across the valley and notice that it’s just a formation happening in the mind. The sounds of the dog begin and end. The memory begins and ends. In that experience, they can see the selflessness within a thought or sensation.

And yet, there is choice. There seems to be a decision-making agent, someone who’s choosing between helpful courses of actions and deleterious courses of action. But when we use the same analytical method as we used in looking at sensations, and so forth, to look at this act of choosing, there does not seem to be a central agent; it’s a concatenation of circumstances.

Robin Kornman: Yes, but if you talk that way, there doesn’t seem to be any reason for trying to convince anybody to do anything different. But Buddhism is a religion, and all of us here are often in the position of being pastoral counselors, trying to convince people to do things as if we believe they existed. In some sense, you have to ignore the emptiness of the self to preach the religion.

Ajahn Amaro: I agree, that’s true. You have a name, I have a name, we all have names. In the normal conventions of personal use, there is individuality. I’m responsible for my actions in the eyes of the law. But if we are talking about the deep tissue philosophical structures and the heart of karma and non-self, we end up talking in a different way.

That’s a helpful distinction. From the perspective of deep insight, and therefore Buddhist doctrine, there is no person, but how you speak to people in ordinary language carries the assumption you’re referring to an ongoing person.

Robin Kornman: Particularly when you get into the Mahayana and start talking about buddhanature, which starts to sound an awful lot like a kind of personhood.

Ajahn Amaro: Yes, indeed.

Robin Kornman: When I talk to a student I find it helpful to assume, if not actually say, “You feel like you exist and I feel like I exist. From the point of view of existence, you have a buddhanature you haven’t discovered and I have a buddhanature I may be beginning to discover.” Then we can move ahead and talk about a vaster ethical system than simply avoiding the negative results of our previous karma. How do you deal with that in the Theravada tradition? How do you deal with the relative truth that there is a kind of self that is, for example, saddled with keeping one’s vows?

Ajahn Amaro: I wouldn’t use the word “saddled” [laughter]. It’s voluntary, after all, at all stages of the game.

Robin Kornman: From my perspective it’s only voluntary for a moment, and then you’ve created a karmic commitment, the choicelessness we spoke of earlier.

Norman Fischer: From the standpoint of the Zen tradition, and also in my own experience working with people, I like to point out that we all have an experience of subjectivity. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be so interested in “the self.” There’s an experience people have of being a subject somehow. The problem is not that this experience needs to be denied but rather that we’re mistaken about the nature of the experience. Rather than understanding that the experience of subjectivity is an ever-changing, ongoing flow of experiences, we take this flow of experience to be a graspable person who must look good and be happy and on and on.

So karma makes sense in terms of the ongoing, ever-evolving, ever-changing, ever-disappearing and reappearing subject, because downstream that subject experiences events that were caused upstream by actions of the subjects of the past. Let’s say the last time we met, I insulted Amaro. This time when we meet, the subjects who now exist feel badly about that, or maybe the subject we call Amaro is now feeling badly about me. That’s how it is.

The problem arises when I think that there is a graspable subject here and a graspable subject there. But in fact, even if I understand the true essence of my self and of Amaro’s self, I still want to pay attention to karma and vipaka, because there will still be effects in the future—although the effects come to bear not on a permanent graspable self but on the ever-changing, ongoing stream of self. Yes, it’s a tricky kind of language, and we have to be careful to draw it out for students, because most people take the no-self language to be a denial of the experience of subjectivity. And such a denial is absurd.

Ajahn Amaro: Right. What we are trying to clarify is that the quality of awareness, the fundamental quality of knowing—or buddhanature, as you would probably call it in the Northern tradition—is not confused by any concrete, independent entity. It’s a pure knowing, not confused or clouded in any way, about the nature of the subjectivity. We might say it’s a pure subjectivity that finds no need to be turned into an individual person.

In the West, however, not having an agent, a doer, feels very squishy to many people. It runs counter to religions and movements that are not only based on free will but actually celebrate will as what makes life worth living.

Norman Fisher: In the Buddhist worldview, there is no equivalent to this celebration of will. It is a totally different view of life. Rather than the assertion of my will as fulfilling my destiny, as the reason for my existence, the Buddhist view has more of a sense of a sharing, a cooperative and creative discovery of experience moment after moment in concert with everything. That’s our destiny and that’s our joy. The whole idea of will implies a separate individual asserting his or her will. That asserting of will escalates to asserting my will against the will of others, so if I want my will to have its satisfaction, I will have to do battle with the wills of others. In Buddhism, that whole construct is just called ignorance.

Ajahn Amaro: Right.

Robin Kornman: But I think we’ve got something in tantra that looks something like that will we’ve been talking about. I’ve been translating a Tibetan tantric Buddhist epic about a warrior-hero known as Gesar of Ling. In the colophon, it says that it was written to present the teachings of cause and effect to sentient beings. It describes the ideal Buddhist warrior as a person who has something that looks like a very honed will. He has a very focused determination. It also says he has “resolved the mind.” In the teachings, it says a person should contemplate their situation on the path, resolve their mind about a given teaching, and then act determinedly in consonance with that teaching.

This is a paradigm for how a good tantric practitioner acts. For a good tantrika, taking vows that will shape your action, your karma, is the greatest force in your life. You use the power of karma to create a feedback system. If you take a vow of refuge, a vow to liberate all sentient beings, and a vow of obedience to your guru, it is as if you place an entity in your system that will punish you when you violate the vow.

Norman Fischer: What’s the difference between will and vow?

Ajahn Amaro: That is an important question. I think there is a gulf of difference separating what we were earlier talking about as “will” and the notion of resolution, such as you would find in the Theravada system of the ten paramis, the ten perfections of the bodhisattva. One of them is adhitthana, resolution or determination. You cannot become a fully enlightened buddha without perfecting the capacity to be determined, to be resolute.

There is a difference between will as something you use to manifest your destiny in the world and something that simply sets events in motion in the world.

Ajahn Amaro: Yes, the latter view is what we call vow, which can lead to the end of karma. The Buddha says that the action of perfecting wisdom brings about the cessation of karma. There’s wholesome karma, unwholesome karma, and then there’s the karma that leads to the cessation of karma. That is the pinnacle of spiritual practice.

Robin Kornman: Yes, when you completely stop believing in ego, karma no longer has the slightest effect. It ceases to function and you are free of karma. Yet I still have to insist that there is something reductive in how you are talking about this. There is not only something akin to will in the nature of resolution or determination in the Buddhist sense but there is also in tantra something akin to charisma–that quality we associate with someone whose “will” or presence exerts effects upon the world. In the Gesar epic, it is called wangthang, which is literally, “field of power,” but it could also be called authentic presence. When you have this kind of power, if you wish something to happen, it tends to happen. That’s an awful lot like something we might call will.

Is the power you are talking about, though, simply intention and the effects of intention writ large? The Buddha was obviously spoken of as having the powers ascribed to the warrior-bodhisattva, or enlightened hero. An average person’s intention may have a small effect, but the intention of a buddha or a bodhisattva will yield greater effects and greater presence.

Ajahn Amaro: Well, indeed, the Buddha certainly had that same kind of massive field of power around him, according to contemporary accounts, and he could intend things and bring about great effects.

Norman Fischer: The kind of phenomenon Robin is talking about may be a characteristic unique to Vajrayana and may apply less in Theravada and Zen. I’m not versed in Vajrayana and don’t really understand it, but it does seem to me that Vajrayana adds the element of a subtle body, a kind of subtle person. It’s not a person of ignorance and attachment but a person of awakening. That teaching doesn’t appear in quite that way in other forms of Buddhism.

Ajahn Amaro: I think we are talking at this point about the action of an enlightened person and our emulation of that. When people ask me how enlightened people act, I say they act like perfect anarchists.

Robin Kornman: Yes. [laughs]

Ajahn Amaro: They are subject to no law whatsoever. The heart is totally freed and unfettered, completely unbound. All they are is an inclination guided by infinite wisdom and infinite kindness, so their actions in the world are immensely powerful but not guided by ego’s concerns. Hence, they have powerful presence and an enormous capacity to manipulate the world, but that so-called manipulation is not motivated by the self. It merely responds to people’s needs and the needs of the situations put before them. They are guided by wisdom and compassion and not by any kind of reactive ego concern.

Robin Kornman: Yes, but it is so strong that it looks like someone trying to impose their will. It looks like somebody has taken the driver’s seat.

Ajahn Amaro: But isn’t that the uniqueness of the Buddha? From the outside he looks like a person creating a religion and manipulating the world, but from the inside there’s no personal mission. Nobody is doing anything.

It seems easy for people to accept karma and vipaka on a small scale. I get angry, it colors my mind, and its effects come back to slap me in the face. It is much harder for people to accept the notion of karma working over lifetimes. What is the mechanism through which this happens? In a theistic religion, you have a godhead who has some kind of a ledger of justice that stores such information, but how do you talk about those things in nontheistic terms? It definitely befuddles people.

Robin Kornman: In the Mahayana, we talk about the alaya, the storehouse of consciousness, which stores the seeds of our actions that will bear fruit later on.

But that simply posits a place, as it were, where seeds are stored. It still begs the question, how does the actual mechanism of karma work? Of course there are sophisticated teachings in the Pali canon that make it clear that karma doesn’t travel from one consciousness to a new consciousness. It’s just a matter of one moment impinging on another, like dominos, but these teachings are all couched in similes or imagined conditions, such as the “relinking consciousness” that arises in the unborn child. It gives people something to visualize but does not present a convincing argument.

Ajahn Amaro: Buddhadharma exists in the West within a very skeptical materialist society. In fact, people are often drawn to Buddhism because they have difficulty getting their minds around the metaphysical teachings in Christianity or Judaism. It seems important to me, then, to be faithful to the simple teachings. For example, the definition of mundane right view is recognizing the workings of karma—that there are past lives, there are future lives, and that they are the results of good and bad actions.

Even though many of the canonical teachings and classical commentaries stress seeing the rebirth process stretching over lifetimes, more often than not the Buddha talks about the rebirth process in moment-to-moment terms. Acting on an angry impulse, one is reborn into regret and so forth. And of course, the whole process cascades. Its workings are responsible for the day-to-day conditioning of human beings, for how society works, and how the whole world is structured.

Robin Kornman: Yes, in that sense, we can speak of societal and national karma.

Ajahn Amaro: Yes, and on a very deep level, the tendencies of different species, and the very fact of being born as a human being in a particular time and place, arise from certain causes and carry their own constellation of effects and imprints of memory.

Norman Fischer: In trying to understand karma in a very deep way, I find the need to go beyond the doctrinal or philosophical. The understanding has to come from the deep experience of ongoing meditation practice. The short-range karma can become very clear, but long experience on the meditation cushion can allow you to realize that this moment contains dimensions that you will never be able to entirely grasp with your five skandhas and six consciousnesses.

Robin Kornman: Although you might be able to grasp it in other ways as times goes on.

Norman Fischer: The bigger questions of the karma of past lives or the karma that gives rise to whole world systems, and all the various doctrinal elaborations, are efforts to explain in logical ways an experiential and intuitive feeling about the inexorable working of karma that arises from deep practice. It is not really possible to account conventionally for such an understanding. Your explanations will be found wanting.

Robin Kornman: I think we have living examples of people who not only have seen those deep workings of karma but also have come to master them, as we were speaking about earlier with respect to the Buddha and Gesar of Ling. I was lucky enough to serve the Sixteenth Karmapa, the late head of the Kagyu lineage. He’s supposed to be a being who is so enlightened that he can control his reincarnation and reincarnate again and again to be the chief lama in the Kagyu tradition. His title means “man of karma,” to acknowledge his mastery over karma. That refers to his ability to perceive the future effects of present actions in such a way that when he recommends that someone take something up, it is nearly certain to lead to beneficial results. I saw it happen many times. That’s an inspiring example that informs the little glimpses I get in my daily sitting practice of how karma actually works.

Ajahn Amaro: When I think and talk about the workings of karma on a large scale, I liken it to the first law of thermodynamics: the sum total of all energy in the universe is constant. With respect to karma

Andy Karr

Andy Karr

Andy Karr is a Buddhist teacher, author, and photographer who offers profound insights into dharma and mind. Karr trained under Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche before moving to Paris in 1979, where he co-founded the first Shambhala Centre in France. Karr is the author of Into the Mirror and Contemplating Reality and the coauthor of The Practice of Contemplative Photography. He continues to teach meditation, the Mahayana view, and Mahamudra. Learn more at