What Is Karma and Why Should it Matter to You?

Karma is essential to Buddhist psychology, says Toni Bernhard, because karma molds our character.

Toni Bernhard
6 September 2011
Photo by Joey Kyber

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)
  • compassion
  • generosity
  • ill-will (or anger)
  • cruelty
  • greed

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.

Toni Bernhard

Toni Bernhard

Toni Bernhard is the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers and How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow. Her newest book is called How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide. Before becoming ill, she was a law professor at the University of California—Davis. Her blog, “Turning Straw Into Gold” is hosted by Psychology Today online. Visit her website at www.tonibernhard.com.