Karma is essential to Buddhist psychology, says Toni Bernhard, because karma molds our character.
Because I’ve written a book on chronic illness from a Buddhist perspective, many people have written to me, saying they believe their poor health is karmic retribution for some past bad action—that they’re sick so they can work off this “bad karma.” With sincere respect for other people’s views, I don’t believe this is consistent with what the Buddha taught.
In the Samyutta Nikaya, one of the collections of the Buddha’s teachings, a wanderer asks the Buddha to comment on the widely held view that whatever a person feels is due to his or her former actions or karma. The Buddha replies that what a person feels may be due to the change in the seasons or even just phlegm (yes, phlegm!). (SN 36.21)
Karma has become a controversial subject to Buddhists, with scholars disagreeing about its meaning. Throwing my hat in the ring, I don’t believe that karma is related to any kind of external justice system where we are doomed to suffer because of some bad action we can’t even remember. Plain and simple, karma is about our intentions—our intentions at this very moment.
The literal translation of karma from Sanskrit is “action,” but the Buddha often said that karma means “intention”:
Intention, I tell you, is karma. Intending, one does karma by way of body, speech, and intellect. (AN 6.63)
Action has two components: (1) your “bare behavior” and (2) your intention accompanying that behavior. It’s important to note that the word “action” here includes physical action, speech, and thoughts—the equivalent of “body, speech, and intellect” in the above quotation from the Buddha. In Buddhist psychology, the key to fulfilling your potential as a human being is not the bare behavioral component of your action but your intention in engaging in that action. And, as the Buddha said: intention is karma.
The Six Intentions
What does it mean to say that karma lies, not in the “bare behavior” that constitutes your action, but in the intention accompanying that action? Consider the physical action of wielding a knife. The bare behavior: wielding a knife. But the intention accompanying the act could be to perform life-saving surgery or it could be to stab someone in anger or to steal from him. The Buddha identified six intentions that underlie action:
- good-will (or kindness)
- ill-will (or anger)
The first three intentions are non-harmful; the last three are harmful. Notice how the six intentions mirror each other: good-will/ill-will; compassion/cruelty; generosity/greed. The “test” of whether an action is non-harmful or harmful is whether, in engaging in that action, you intend to alleviate suffering for yourselves and others or to intensify it.
The same analysis that applies to the physical act of wielding a knife applies to speech. If you yell at someone, “Don’t move!” that’s your “bare behavior.” But your intention could be kind (trying to stop the person from stepping in front of a moving car) or it could be based on ill-will (the words “don’t move” being spoken with a gun pressed against the person’s back).
The same analysis applies to thoughts. If you’re thinking about the homeless, that’s the bare content of your thoughts. But your intention accompanying that thought could be compassionate (hoping they find a place to stay warm in the winter) or it could be cruel (hoping they freeze in the cold).
Planting behavioral seeds that form our character
Karma is crucial to our development as wise, loving, and caring human beings because every time we act with a non-harmful intention, we predispose ourselves to act that way again. We plant a behavioral seed. Conversely, every time we act with a harmful intention, we predispose ourselves to act that way again, making it more likely that the next time our behavior will be harmful.
Here is the Buddha on this subject:
Whatever a person frequently thinks and ponders upon, that becomes the inclination of his mind…If a person’s thinking is frequently imbued with ill-will… his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with ill will… (MN19)
The key word is “inclination.” Each time our intention is one of ill-will, an inclination to respond with ill-will is strengthened. In other words, we’re more likely to act out of ill-will in the future. Conversely, each time our intention is to be kind, an inclination to respond with kindness is strengthened. We’re, in effect, learning how to be kind and so we’re more likely to be kind in the future. The same analysis applies to the other four intentions.
And so, by responding with kindness, compassion, and generosity, we are turning ourselves into a person who is kind, compassionate, and generous. We are forming our character. This, in turn, has a positive effect on the world around us. (And of course, the converse is true, should we respond to the world with ill-will, cruelty, and greed.)
The key to learning to incline ourselves toward non-harmful intentions is to reflect on whether our proposed speech or action will intensify suffering for ourselves and others or will alleviate it. Mindfulness practice helps here because it makes us more aware of our reactive tendencies. Then, instead of acting impulsively, we’re able to examine our intentions before we act.
As the Buddha said above, “Intending, one does karma…” Thus, with the intention not to harm, we “do” karma, meaning that the person we become is kind, compassionate, and generous.
Karma is a profound teaching, one worthy of our careful attention.
Postscript: Speaking personally, I believe I’m sick because I’m in a body and bodies get sick and injured and old. That’s the essence of the Buddha’s first noble truth.
Free Will says
Firstly, karma was not a concept invented by the Buddha. It was borrowed from much earlier yogic traditions, from which the Jains are the most well-known example today.
The problem that most people face regarding intent has more to do with a lack of insight into the nature of things. Specifically in terms of doing "no harm" we could propose the example of the opportunity to murder Hitler before he built all the concentration camps. Only with the hindsight of what he did in the years that followed gives us the perspective to say that such a seemingly "bad" action would be ultimately "justified" in terms of doing much less "harm" to the species in general than the "harm" done by killing him outright. There is a reason people say "the road to hell is paved with good intentions".
Engineering reality via karma is a slippery slope. I personally dont think it was the Buddha's intent to teach people that the way to nirvana was through cultivation of "non-violent" karma, or any karma, actually. I would say his message was that people should work to see beyond all reactivity (or karma), and eventually reside there.
I would consider it pretty shortsighted (at best) for anyone to claim that all their self-proclaimed "positive" actions are universally "good" for everyone and everything in existence. Essentially, karma is blind, and that is the reason it has such reactive momentum and gives rise to all kinds of situations and events. It is polarized, and must deal with one side at the expense of the other possibilities.
Thanks for your comment. I agree that the Buddha didn't invent the concept of karma. I don't believe I indicated otherwise! In his day, the belief in karma and reincarnation were the equivalent of our belief in blood-typing or DNA. They were taken for granted. I was just giving my interpretation of what the Buddha himself meant by the word karma based on what's in the Pali Canon. He appears to have put his own gloss on the meaning of several common concepts of his day.
I didn't intend to suggest that a person's self-proclaimed "positive" actions are universally "good" for everyone and everything in existence (and I don't think the piece suggests that). It suggests that acting out of an intent not to harm, tends to affect your subsequent actions — making it more likely that the next time you'll act, it will be in a non-harming way. This is highly likely to benefit others (perhaps not "everyone and everything in existence," but certainly those with whom you come into contact.
I'm afraid I don't understand what you meant in your last two sentences (starting with "Essentially, karma is blind…"). Perhaps you could expand on that.
Thanks for reading and commenting. Warmly, Toni
Karma is "action", not "wisdom". Karma is not prajna. Karma begets itself continuously in a chain reaction, which apparent control over is quite illusory in essence. Regardless of your intent to suggest or not to suggest, people will interpret your article on their own. The idea that a person's self-proclaimed "positive" actions are universally "good" for everyone and everything in existence is actually a somewhat common viewpoint for people, believe it or not. I do think your piece would reinforce that belief for someone who already has it.
Buddha said that by "intending, one does karma".. not that "karma is intent". It may be a subtle distinction, but I would say it is an important one.
Thanks for your comment. I know the Pali Canon is subject to different interpretations (and different translations!) but note that in the excerpt containing the phase, "intending, one does karma," the Buddha says just prior to the phrase, "Intention, I tell you, is karma."
I also observe that many people see illness as karmic retribution. Along with this is the feeling that over time, this should at least result in a type of cleansing. It is a tidy way to look at thngs and make sense of the randomness of life. If there doesn’t seem to be a rhyme or reason for what is happening, it is difficult to accept. We seem to want to tie our experience into something meaningful, and that we can get through our troubles and on to the other side. You can see how compelling the belief in karma is, as a complete metaphysical support to explaining all the mysteries going on around us. It takes a lot of bravery to believe otherwise.
Andrew — This is very much how I see it. It took me many years of illness to just accept that, because we're in bodies, they're subject to disease (as the Buddha saw on his first trip beyond the palace walls). My book expands on those lessons from the Buddha. Thanks for reading and commenting. Warmly, Toni
[ but note that in the excerpt containing the phase, "intending, one does karma," the Buddha says just prior to the phrase, "Intention, I tell you, is karma." ]
Yes, but this is like comparing the statement: "bread is food." to the statement "food is bread". He said "intent is karma"… not "karma is intent".
Food is not always bread, sometimes it is vegetables or fruits or other items… but bread is always food. Food is the category that holds the classification of bread… just as karma is the category that holds the classification of intent.
Karma is the mechanical aspect of movement and interaction that keeps everything constantly changing. It is much, much broader than the specific classification of personal "intent". When atoms coalesce into molecules, that is karma. When the earth orbits the sun, that is karma. When you drop a ball and it hits the ground, that is karma. When you constantly think about something so much that it develops its own momentum, that is karma.
Thanks for your clarification. You are correct that saying intention is karma is not the same as saying karma is intention. Sloppy thinking on my part.
That said though, I have to agree with Charlie's comment below that although you've given one view of Karma, it is not the Buddha's view.
Stitching Time says
I dont claim to speak for the Buddha, and neither should you. So if you are claiming to do so, I would have to say the same thing:
"you've given one view of Karma, it is not the Buddha's view."
Specifically, as I have noted elsewhere, the pali canon was written hundreds of years after the Buddha passed away. It is not a direct transcription.
I really must insist that you don't have some kind of dominion over "the Buddha's view". Giving lip service to the concept of subjectivity is not the same as penetrating into its nature as it arises along with events.
Nowhere in my piece do I claim to speak for the Buddha. I simply don't understand your claim that I have indicated in any way that I have (to use your words) "dominion over the Buddha's view." I'm at a loss to understand how you could have gleaned that from my piece.
I make it clear throughout that I am giving my opinion of the Buddha's view of karma based on my reading of the Canon. Of course (as you say), the Canon is not a direct transcription of his words but it's the closest we have to what he taught. And so, in my opinion, it is appropriate for me to write about what I believe his interpretation of karma was based on my reading several translations of the Canon.
It makes me sad that some of the responses to my piece appear to have an underlying tone of hostility rather than one of open dialogue.
Praying Hands says
You don't always have to claim something outright. There are many things which motivate actions but are not noticed at a conscious level. You keep referring to your piece as if your responses to comments are not relevant in any way. However, I prefer to address your responses to personal communications rather than something you have written to a crowd of people. When you tell me that I have given a view "that is not the Buddha's view", I look into what the implications of that statement are. It is obvious to me that I am not the Buddha and cannot give his view, however in this context it seems that you are saying your presentation IS the Buddhas view. This is where I must speak out.
Perhaps your perception of underlying hostility is a projection of your own unexamined motivations. I find it very odd that my disagreement provokes you to sadness. It seems that you wish to play the victim – and that is my honest and open subjectivity regarding this exchange. I dont feel guilty for responding to your comments in an honest way. If you wish to make me feel guilty you can certainly try, but it will not work. When I think of "hostility" I think of physical violence… not disagreements in the context of a debate, especially those with very little emotional content. In fact, I would consider it fairly ridiculous to classify it in that way – but that is just my opinion.
Are "Praying Hands" and "Stitching Time" the same person?
I disagree with your statement that I keep referring to my piece as if my responses to comments are not relevant in any way.
"Karma is the mechanical aspect of movement and interaction that keeps everything constantly changing. It is much, much broader than the specific classification of personal "intent". When atoms coalesce into molecules, that is karma. When the earth orbits the sun, that is karma. When you drop a ball and it hits the ground, that is karma. When you constantly think about something so much that it develops its own momentum, that is karma."
Karma may be defined in this way elsewhere, but it is not in Buddhism, which — last I checked — is the perspective of the article. In Buddhism karma refers specifically to mental, verbal, and physical actions by sentient beings, not molecules and celestial objects.
Thanks for reading and commenting Charlie. It was nice to see that you interpret the Buddha's view of karma the same way I do. It's not that I'm doing a poll as to who is "right" or "wrong" here: it's that it's nice to see I'm not completely off-base! (Actually, I've read other Buddhist teachers and scholars who interpret karma in Buddhism the same way you and i do.)
Diane D'Angelo says
I suspect this misinterpretation of Karma stems from Western beliefs in a punishing God.
Hi Diane. That's a fascinating thought. So many people turn to Buddhism to get away from the punishing God they were taught to believe in as they grew up. Perhaps the misinterpretation of karma is indeed a remnant of that belief. Thanks so much for the comment.
While it's possible for events not to be the result of kamma, that likelihood is relatively rare according to Buddhist philosophy. *Most* of what we experience is is the direct or indirect result of kamma.
From my own personal experience w/CFS and meditation insight I can safely say that most cases of chronic fatigue are kammic occurrences from inaction or abrogation of responsibility to act during past events such as the Holocaust. Today we are very concerned w/making people feel good about being sick, showing acceptance, tolerance, etc – which undoubtedly are very important from the perspective of honoring the individual & displacing negative western cultural stereotypes & prejudices around being ill – but it's also important to uncover root causes, which ultimately always come to ignorance (ignoring), hatred (avoidance), or greed. To get at something deep like kammic causes of CFS, we have to go deep.
Hello shoeh-gypsy. I can't imagine what personal experience you've had that would lead you to think that CFS could be caused by abrogation of responsibility to act during past events such as the Holocaust.
We know that many cases of CFS follow from chemical injury, mostly from exposure to organophosphate & other petrochemical poisons and cocktails. Most of those chemicals were developed, or had started to be developed, by nazi scientists, many even in the US who had been allowed to come here for 'asylum' in exchange for their scientific work.
In my particular case, and in many other cases I'm familiar with, poisoning followed mercury exposure from amalgams & poisoning from new carpet and other toxins. Carpet at that time commonly contained a substance called 4-PC, or 4-phenylcyclohexane. 4-PC is a direct relation to another widely known chemical called Zyklon B – a pesticidal nerve gas used to kill Jews & gypsies during the Holocaust, and which is still manufactured in some parts of the world, e.g., Czech republic.
After getting poisoned and then finally done in by fumes from a gas stove, I had a Jewish doctor telling me I had to take out the toxic mercury fillings and put gold into my mouth. Together with the virtual imprisonment of MCS/CFS, the loss of almost everything – career, friends, family in many cases, health, savings, etc. – it doesn't take the Dalai Lama to start to see some of the connections.
In my case it became clear to me that as a gypsy in the holocaust I committed suicide as a displacing action against the atrocities & horrors I was witnessing that I couldn't cope with. The universe has a funny way of not letting us ignore or avert from things, however, and it is close to a universal law imho that anything unpleasant or disturbing that we try to ignore or avoid will come back to us in one form or another eventually. Often this takes many lives & therefore the connections are not always so clear.
But consider that even now, almost 10 years to the day after 9/11, we can see the massive worldwide kammic results from that event, which involved directly only 19 or 20 madmen & a few thousand victims. To think that a global conflict directly involving tens of millions of people and atrocities such as we have barely seen before would not have lingering kammic effects even years later – especially when many of the instigators of damaged immunity, chemical poisoning, etc. were developed by those players – would imho simply be naive. These kinds of events & atrocities have repercussions stretching beyond what we can often imagine. That's why it's important for us to stand up to injustice & violence against people and the earth whenever we encounter it, to stop the cycle of negative kamma that leads to sicknesses & sufferings like we are seeing so much of – and unfortunately increasing – these days.
I read your book recently & found it very helpful, btw. In many ways it was incredibly eerie reading your descriptions as if they could have been written by me – loss of 10+ years formal meditation practice, loss of career, friends evaporating into thin air, developing addiction (?) to tennis, etc. (US Open rained out last couple days ;-)). Undoubtedly I will continue to revisit over the years for support & inspiration, thx.
Perhaps the simplest and most verifiable way to view karma is that processes involving body ,speech, and mind which reinforce the dualistic ego-sense are karmic. The experiences may be pleasant or unpleasant but ,most importantly, they will deepen the ego-illusion because intention and self-actions are based on this illusion.
The ego-less state, by definition, does not create new karma, since there is no longer the illusion of an inherent self doing something.
This is a very interesting view. Thanks for reading and commenting. Do you believe that all intention deepens the ego-illusion? I'd love to know your thoughts on this to try and deepen my own understanding.
Yes, all intention generated from a sense of seprate-self will naturally reinforce the self-illusion and will "karmically" propagate and deepen this illusion. See if this is not so, even when we act from the "higher" impulses to be of help.
The chain of causation might be delineated as, limited self-sense–> thought based on self-sense–>action based on thought/self-sense–> reinforce self-sense.
When we intend/act from a self-sense with intention of kindness, for example, the mind does become generally more peaceful and practice becomes more accessable and deeper. In this sense, it certainly is skillful to intend/act from this perspective.
But as long as the fundamental illusion, the separate self-sense, is not seen through and given up the karmic loop propagtes itself. All this is verifiable through experience. It is also possible to act without self-intention since that is fundamentally how we and everything "act" anyway. This is also verifiable.
"Nothing ever goes away until it's taught us what we need to know." ~Pema Chodron
Lothar Schenk says
The passage in AN 6,63 where it says in the Pali "cetanāhaṃ, bhikkhave, kammaṃ vadāmi" is better translated as "intention, monks, is what I call kamma (karma)". (1) The Buddha gives this as the answer to the proposition he made earlier, namely "'kammaṃ, bhikkhave, veditabbaṃ" – "kamma, monks, should be known", so it is clear that he wants to tell the monks what kamma is (according to him, the Buddha). (2) If it said in the original "cetanāhaṃ kammaṃ, bhikkhave, vadāmi", then this could be translated as "I tell you, monks", but actually vadāmi does not follow "bikkhave" but "kammaṃ" thus giving it the meaning "this is what I say kamma is". (3) The Buddha's take on kamma which he expressed with these words is actually a radical departure from the thinking of some of his contemporaries on that term, namely, that kamma is predominantly physical action. There is a sutta in the Majjhima Nikaya, MN 56, where this becomes apparent. (4) I recommend Thanissaro Bhikkhu's explanations of the Buddha's take on kamma in his book "The Wings to Awakening" to anyone interested in that subject. It can be read online at: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanis….
A shorter treatise is Thanissaro Bhikkhus essay titled "Karma" which can be read here: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanis…
Thank you for providing these links. I particularly enjoyed Thanissaro Bhikkhus' essay, "Karma." He used the word "motive" in it which I think is synonymous with my use of the word "intention" in my piece. I didn't find my piece to be in conflict with this essay. Did you? Thanks so much again for adding to the discussion.
Lothar Schenk says
It was not my intention to find fault with your exposition. My motive was to reinforce the message and provide some additional perspective.
Very clear and helpful. Thank you.