The following article came from my notes for an InsightTimer Live session. I do these sessions roughly every week, generally at 10am Eastern time. They are oriented to the practice of meditation and the topics act as inspiration for practice and to promote contemplation and discussion. I invite you to join one of these sessions if you’re inclined, and to engage in discussion there as well as engaging and commenting here. I am eager for constructive feedback, so private and public messages are most welcome. Thanks for reading!
Karma (or kamma) is perhaps the most well-known term from the Dharmic traditions, and is subject to wide interpretations in both religious and secular realms. My interest in this term, and any term, is in its utility in being put into practice. I will lay out some concepts that point to proposed metaphysical realities, but I don’t claim to know these things as absolute truths. Thannisaro Bhikkhu, an American monk who helps inform much of my meditation theory, says to take on certain ideas as working hypotheses for the sake of testing it out. In many cases, it’s the felt reality, the proof in the pudding through the practice that seems to point to a reality that perhaps words are insufficient to describe.
A useful distinction within the concept of karma, which I learned from both the teachings of Thanissaro Bhikkhu and the Pali Canon (Buddhist scripture), is between old karma and new karma. In the Kamma Sutta (not to be confused with the Kama Sutra) it states:
The eye…the ear…the tongue…the body… the intellect is to be seen as old kamma,fabricated and willed, capable of being felt. And what is new kamma? Whatever kamma one does now with the body, with speech, or with the intellect.
It is acknowledged that old karma is “fabricated and willed”, which works with one of the classic definitions of karma- “action”. At some time in the past, action took place to lead to the current perceptions of the senses (life as we experience it). This is a place where some people get stuck on the idea of karma, because it might imply that we are somehow to blame for our current circumstances. While this has some truth to it, it’s an equation we’re better off applying to new karma, because we must take into account the scale of the matter regarding old karma. The Buddha paints a picture of our karmic past as enormous, and suggests that the fruits of that karma are not experienced in a linear way. One of the metaphors for how we experience karma is throwing a stick up in the air and seeing how it lands. It may land flat and point in any of a variety of directions; it may land on its end and then fall, etc. This could lead people to believe that there’s nothing to be done, because that picture seems totally random. However, the randomness of our lot is actually another factor of our karma. Not having arrived at right view* (more on that later) and engaged in a practice, we will have done a variety of wholesome and unwholesome things, but without much rhyme or reason, and therefore the fruits of those actions also appear to be random. This is where the importance of new karma comes in.
Taking responsibility now is encapsulated in the quote: “I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and live dependent on my actions. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir.” Again, this is not meant to blame, or to excuse the injustice of the world. Karma operates regardless of our understanding of it, but there is the possibility of understanding and acting on it now. In Buddhist lore, the world as we commonly understand it is in a state known as Samsara, which can be translated as “wandering”. Part of the essence of that wandering is ignorance- in this case, it is ignorance of the path of practice which leads to the release of karma. “And what is the path of practice leading to the cessation of kamma? Just this noble eightfold path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.” The Buddha’s path was explicitly offered to everyone, regardless of their current station in life. Unlike other teachings of the time, the Buddha’s teachings don’t propose that one’s current station in life is a sign of some kind of linear climb through spiritual realms. This is why new karma turns out to be immensely more powerful than old karma, but the only way it works is if the practitioner takes up this reorientation to the present- “…[what] one does now with the body, speech, or with the intellect.” To some degree, of course, as people who haven’t yet achieved nirvana, we do these things in the context of our old karma, but this is decreasingly the case when our intentions and our resolve come in line with our current actions. A good question to ask might be, “Am I present, engaged, and actively aware of the karma I’m creating now, or am I operating from an old karma program?”
I won’t go into great detail about the noble eightfold path, but we can think about it generally in terms of karma. The path is commonly divided into three parts: discernment factors, virtue factors, and concentration factors. Broadly speaking, the discernment factors point to our understanding and resolve around the idea of our agency in how we suffer or don’t suffer; the virtue factors lay out some basic “rules” around our actions in the world, which can be generalized to the actions in our minds; and the concentration factors are how we practice these “rules” (aka train our minds) through meditation. I put “rules” in quotes mostly as a reminder that the real rule is karma. You are free to wander on forever, but if you want to find something like peace (and it’s said that nirvana is well beyond any notion of peace we might conceive of), this is the path. Some of what the path warns against is pretty obvious, like not stealing, killing, or sexually harming someone; but then there’s lying, and taking intoxicants, and having a job that on some level causes harm in the world. Subtleties and socially acceptable transgressions can begin to take on a larger role as the mind becomes more still and perceptive. We might, occasionally to our horror, come to realize just how large a role we’ve been playing in our own suffering. Ultimately, it is the mind and the intentions behind our thoughts and actions which dictate our karma, and the proposed laboratory for working with that mind is meditation.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu suggests thinking of meditation as doing good karma. It is an act of renunciation- at the very least, you aren’t going to cause any harm outside during that time. And if you take up the Buddha’s recommendation of cultivating good will, calming the mind and body, and aligning your thoughts and actions with long-term well-being rather than long-term pain and suffering, then you can see how this is justly thought of as good karma- a good, blameless activity. In the end, maybe the best utility I’ve found in the concept of karma, and especially new karma, is that it’s good inspiration for practice. In the vastness of past actions, alongside countless creatures of varying intentions, in a universe of unknown proportions, I might bring my attention to the brink, to the closest thing we might conceive of as the creative force of free will**- a fairly tantalizing proposal. Its requirements are humble- an empty dwelling, the foot of a tree, and just this fathom long body and mind- and yet its rewards are potentially limitless.
*An attendee asked, “Who or what defines what is right?” My response: As I mentioned in the live session, “right” is also sometimes defined as “wise” or “skillful”. In terms of the noble eightfold path, the “Who” of the definition is the Buddha. To some degree we take as a working hypothesis that these teachings are wise and useful. We don’t know if it’s right just because the 2600 year old teachings are written down. The Buddha claims that these are the ways to proceed for the sake of release. It is claimed that this was his experience and it was the experience of others who have found release. So, independent of whether you believe that there is such thing as objective right and wrong, you can test out this hypothesis in your life and in meditation.
**I acknowledge that there’s some debate around the epistemology of free will. Feel free to replace “free will” with “the mystery” or “God’s will” or “the clockwork”. I don’t think the practice necessarily hinges on the use of the term, so long as earnest engagement takes place. Whose engagement? It’s a mystery to me.
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Thanks to Adina Voicu for the image!