Understanding The Law Of Cause And Effect: Karma In Buddhism
“Then the Buddha explained the Karma Sutra: “Destiny is the aggregate karmic effects from past life. Past Karma determined your present destiny. Present Karmas are to mould your next life. Learn the law of Karma expounded as follows.” – The Golden Precepts by Shakyamuni Buddha
We can find the law of cause and effect in many spiritual traditions and many people nowadays are accustomed to the word Karma, which in fact means action. The principle of Karma is well explained in the Hindu and especially in the Buddhist tradition. The Law of Cause and Effect is a central topic as Buddha explained it in many major teachings called the Sutras.
Buddha explained that all the feelings of happiness, unhappiness, and neutral feelings accompany every single moment of each being’s existence. These are caused by not knowing the real condition of reality and the subsequent formation of Karma, or the setting in motion of the endless chain of cause and effect, through the twelve interdependent links of karmic formation.
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Karma According to Buddhism
In Buddhism, Karma is not only the physical action but also the verbal action and especially the mental impulse or urge to act through intention-oriented thoughts which brings one in the direction of a particular experience. In a nutshell, Karma in Buddhism is motivation and what is motivated. That’s why one can accumulate good and bad Karma just by wishing an outcome with a strong motivation.
The action itself is a positive or a negative karmic force, which sometimes is called merit or non-virtue. When completed, this carries its karmic effect, which continues with a person’s mental continuum as a karmic tendency or constant habits to repeat the action though body, speech and mind. For a complete karmic cause to be set in motion, we always need four factors: the basis of the action or the object at which the action is aimed; the intention to act based on a motivation which can be positive, negative or neutral; the action itself needs to be carried out directly or indirectly, and we need to be satisfied or at least feel no regret after doing the action.
If one of these four factors is not present, the karmic consequence will be less heavy. But that doesn’t mean that there will be no results. In the latter case, we speak of a karmic impediment which will contribute to the maturation of other karmic primary causes similar in nature. There can be physical and verbal actions, but these usually start with mental urges or mental Karmas. The urge to do something comes before the actual action and it is often accompanied by its own compelling emotion.
The Ripening of Different Karmas
There are three general rules regarding the ripening of Karma.
The first is the certainty of the result, which means that unless it meets a hindrance or one purifies a negative action or neutralize it with a positive action of the same nature and weight, the result will never disappear until the right circumstances for its ripening present themselves. Connected to this is the fact that the passing of time does not wear off a karmic cause. But even though infinite Karma has been created, there is always the chance to change it and to not experience its result by completely purifying it or counteracting it with a primary cause of an opposite nature, which is like destroying the ability of the seed to grow.
The second rule of ripening is the increase of result which means that from a small action very large results can follow. The third is that if one has not committed a certain action, one will not experience its results even if the secondary circumstances present themselves, although one would still experience the effect of planned actions which he didn’t actually commit in person, but told someone else to do, like for example paying someone to kill someone etc.
In Buddhism it is explained that Karma ripens as an effect in four different ways:
- The first is the effect of maturation, the experience of one’s birth aggregates, like the type of body and mind or intelligence one has, and the particular dimension in which one has been reborn. For example in the phenomenal plane of sensuous desire, a mind dominated by anger is the cause for rebirth in the dimension of the various hells. Predominant and persistent accumulation of greed and attachment causes one to be reborn as a starving spirit. Accumulation of persistent and dense states of very dimmed awareness or fogginess of mind without the ability of discernment of what to accept and what to reject causes the birth as one type of animal, humans are caused by a more or less equal mix of different emotions and the accumulation of virtuous intentions and actions. Although in the human realm one can also notice all the different degrees of suffering and joy depending on the predominant emotion. Heavenly ‘god like’ beings are caused by predominant pride and a great store of accumulated virtuous intentions and actions.
- The second is the effect in agreement with the cause or of compatibility, which is the urge or compulsion in every moment to intend and do something similar to what we did before and experience its effects.
- The third is called the cumulative effect which can be related to the environment in which we are born and in that rebirth, all the various feelings of happiness and unhappiness we experience. The cumulative effect is also connected to the collective karma of all sentient beings inhabiting and shaping a certain environment and dimension (see chapter four).
- The fourth is the cumulative effect of ripening, or the tendency to experience a situation similar to what we did, with the same situations happening back to us over and over, (we kill once and we are killed sub sequentially many times), one cause can ripen into many effects.
There is also the differentiation between ‘throwing and completing Karma’. The former being the cause that has the potentiality to ‘throw’ us into the next rebirth, and the latter being the one responsible for shaping our rebirth, for example we can be reborn as dog due to the throwing karmic cause, but then depending on the completing causes we could be either a stray dog in constant search for food or a pet in some rich household.
This is because certain causes produce precise effect. For example actions of generosity through our physical, verbal and mental actions produce wealth and enjoyments. The cause of not killing but saving other’s lives produces a long life and freedom from illness. The cause of saying the truth and not lying produces the effect that others listen to what we have to say and believe in us and so on. The most important thing to remember as a general rule is that the karmic result of any action is always based on the intention or motivation behind it, what seems to be a positive action can actually have a negative effect if the motivation behind is not entirely positive. We could say that what we are now is the sum of all our intentions and motivations accumulated in this life and in infinite past lives.
Different degrees of ripening
The karmic consequence of our actions can ripen into something strong or into something light and this depends on many factors.
- The first factor is the nature of the action involved. This is in terms of the suffering or happiness that it causes the object of our action.
- The second is the strength of the emotion, negative or positive, that accompanies the action. Hurting someone with really strong hatred is much worse than hurting them with just a little bit of anger.
- The third is the distorted, compelling drive, based on the wrong view, in other words, whether or not we believe that doing a certain action is perfectly all right and anybody who thinks the opposite is wrong or stupid.
- The fourth is the basis at which the action is aimed. This varies according to the amount of benefit we or others have received from that being in the past, or will receive in the present and future, and according to the good qualities of the being involved.
- The fifth is the frequency or habits to do such action, for example if we have done a certain action many times in the past it is heavier than just doing it once.
- The sixth is the number of people involved in committing the action, committing actions in groups is heavier than committing them alone, the emotions involved add up with the number of people involved.
- The seventh is the power of regret and the presence or absence of opposing forces. For example, if we do something negative, whether or not we counterbalance it with a lot of positive actions or feel regret and decide not to repeat the action. A negative action is very heavy if we don’t regard it as a mistake. What opposes that is admitting that it was a mistake even if we didn’t think there was anything wrong with it when we did it. If we admit that it was a mistake afterwards it will start to purify the consequences or at least make them less heavy.
- Last but not least is the power of rejoicing in the positive or negative actions and attitudes of others. If we rejoice in the positive actions of others, we build up positive karmic force and if we rejoice in the destructive or negative actions of others, we build up a negative karmic force and both of these attitudes will have an effect on our life.
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