The concept of karma as an element of Buddhist thought is bandied about quite a bit in the West among the average citizen, and is usually accompanied by a lack of understanding as to what the Buddha taught about karma. Accordingly, I would like to examine some of the basics of the Buddha's teaching on karma and try to explain them for the contemporary Western reader.
For the Buddha, karma is an uncontroversial law of nature, just as inevitable and apparent to those who study nature deeply as the law of gravity is for contemporary physics. For the average Westerner who has heard in passing of the concept of karma, this inevitability is framed in terms of "good karma" and "bad karma", terms which bear a great deal of resemblance to the proverb, "What goes around comes around."
This sort of karma is understood to be a sort of cosmic payback system, a cause-effect relationship in which doing bad things results in bad things happening to you in this life, and doing good things results in good things happening to you in this life. It can be imagined as a sort of Newtonian law of motion applied to the moral acts of individuals, that for each action there is a corresponding reaction in the human social sphere. Under this view of karma, being kind and agreeable to others results in others being kind and agreeable to you, so just be kind and agreeable already.
The Buddha does not dispute that our moral acts have an impact in this life, and makes a strong case that acts of kindness are an important part of living this life well, specifically that it leads to our happiness in this life as I've demonstrated before. On the other hand, the Buddha's understanding of karma extends far beyond this life, and his primary concern is to help us reach the other shore, as I've also documented previously.
He conveys to us the importance of reaching the other shore in visceral and disturbing terms. He helps us to understand why we must leave the River of Sorrow for the other shore in his Stream of Blood discourse with the monks of the Sangha.
"Monks, this samsara is without discoverable beginning. A first point is not discerned of beings roaming and wandering on, hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving. What do you think, monks, which is more: the stream of blood that you have shed when you were beheaded as you roamed and wandered through this long course--this or the water in the four great oceans?"
"As we understand the dhamma taught by the Blessed One, venerable sir, the stream of blood that we have shed when we were beheaded as we roamed and wandered through this long course--this alone is more than the water in the four great oceans."
"Good, good, monks! It is good that you understand the Dhamma taught by me in such a way. The stream of blood that you have shed as you roamed and wandered through this long course--this alone is more than the water in the four great oceans. For a long time, monks, you have been cows, and when as cows you were beheaded, the stream of blood that you have shed is greater than the waters in the four great oceans. For a long time you have been buffalo, sheep, goats, deer, chickens, and pigs.... For a long time you have been arrested as burglars, highwaymen, and adulterers, and when you were beheaded the stream of blood that you shed is greater than the water in the four great oceans."
The Buddha wants us to understand that the problem is much more serious than our sufferings in this one life, that we cannot stop at merely being kind and agreeable to others in this life. For the Buddha, there are not two kinds of karma, divided into "good" and "bad" categories so easy to understand for those who like simple binary distinctions. The Buddha explains in the Pali canon that the karma we build up in the course of our lives can be of four kinds: dark karma, bright karma, dark and bright karma, and karma that is neither bright nor dark.
"And what, monks, is dark kamma with dark results? Here, monks, someone generates an afflictive volitional formation of body, speech, or mind. Having done so, he is reborn in an afflictive world. When he is reborn in an afflictive world, afflictive contacts touch him. Being touched by afflictive contacts, he experiences an afflictive feeling, extremely painful, as for example the beings in hell experience. This is called dark kamma with dark results.
And what, monks, is bright kamma with bright results? Here, monks, someone generates a non-afflictive volitional formation of body, speech, or mind. Having done so, he is reborn in a non-afflictive world. When he is reborn in a non-afflictive world, non-afflictive contacts touch him. Being touched by non-afflictive contacts, he experiences a non-afflictive feeling, extremely pleasant, as for example the devas of refulgent glory experience. This is called bright kamma with bright results."
The Buddha mentions in his taxonomy of karma that these forms of karma are the result of volitional acts, that our karma arises from our choices rather than arising from our circumstances. Like the average Westerner, he sees karma as a product of our moral decision-making, but unlike the average Westerner, he sees that karma does not simply apply to this life. In the Buddha's view, our choices shape who we are in this life, and who we are in this life determines our circumstances in the next life by bringing about circumstances that match how we treated ourselves and others.
Thus if our lives are an affliction to ourselves and others as a result of our choices, we are reborn into a world which matches the affliction we brought to ourselves and others. Just as in the Christian cosmology hell is the natural result of a choice to separate one's self from God's love and heaven is the natural result of uniting one's self with God's love, so too in the Buddhist cosmology the afflictive, torturous worlds known as narakas are the natural result of our being an affliction to others, and the pleasant heavenly planes of the devas of refulgent glory and Brahma are the natural result of our not being an affliction to others.
And just as in certain forms of Christianity there are states in between Hell and Heaven such as Purgatory or Limbo, so too in Budddhism are there states in between the deepest, most torturous naraka and the highest heavenly plane.
"And what, monks, is dark and bright kamma with dark and bright results? Here, monks, someone generates both an afflictive volitional formation of body, speech, or mind and a non-afflictive volitional formation of body, speech, or mind. Having done so, he is reborn in a world that is both afflictive and non-afflictive. When he is reborn in such a world, both afflictive and non-afflictive contacts touch him. Being touched by such contacts, he experiences both an afflictive feeling and a non-afflictive feeling, a mixture and conglomeration of pleasure and pain, as for example human beings and some devas and some beings in the lower world experience. This is called dark and bright kamma with dark and bright results."
The Buddha saw a broad range of worlds into which we move based on our choices in each life, a set of worlds which seem to the Western mind to exist along a moral spectrum, a spectrum that spans from the deepest suffering in the most terrifying naraka to a completely pleasant experience on the highest heavenly plane. And somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, the world we experience as human beings exposes us to a bit of both.
Understandably, our first inclination upon accepting the truth of the Buddha's vision is to strive for bright karma so that we can reach the highest heavenly plane. But one more type of karma remains for us to understand, and it's the most important one, the karma which liberates us from the cycle of death and rebirth.
"And what, monks, is kamma that is neither dark nor bright, with neither dark nor bright results, which leads to the destruction of kamma? The volition to abandon this dark kamma with dark results, and to abandon the bright kamma with bright results, and to abandon the dark and bright kamma with the dark and bright results -- this is called the kamma that is neither dark nor bright, with neither dark nor bright results, which leads to the destruction of kamma."
The Buddha, much like the Western mystics of the Christian, Islamic, and Baha'i traditions, calls us to something beyond a life of endless pleasure. He invites us to something even greater, an existence which transcends mere existence and ends our vision of the world that is obsessively focused on our suffering or the lack thereof.
"Monks, whatever grounds there are for making merit productive of a future birth, all these do not equal a sixteenth part of the liberation of mind by loving-kindness. The liberation of mind by loving-kindness shines forth, bright and brilliant. ... And just as in the night, at the moment of dawn, the morning star shines forth, bright and brilliant, even so, whatever grounds there are for making merit productive of a future birth, all these do not equal a sixteenth part of the liberation of mind by loving-kindness. The liberation of mind by loving-kindness surpasses them and shines forth, bright and brilliant."
The Buddha sees the path to liberation of our minds from our obsession with suffering or the lack thereof as starting very simply.
The Buddha said to Anathapindika: "In the past, householder, there was a Brahmin named Velama. He gave such a great alms offering as this: 84,000 bowls of gold filled with silver; 84,000 bowls of silver filled with gold; 84,000 bronze bowls filled with bullion; 84,000 elephants, chariots, milch cows, maidens, and couches, many millions of fine cloths, and indescribable amounts of food, drink, ointment, and bedding. As great as was the alms offering that Velama gave, it would be even more fruitful if one were to feed even a single person possessed of right view. As great as the Brahmin Velama's alms offering was, and though one would feed a hundred persons possessed of right view, it would be even more fruitful if one would feed a single once-returner....it would be even more fruitful if, with a trusting mind, one would go for refuge to the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha, and would undertake the five precepts: abstaining from the destruction of life, from taking what is not given, from sexual misconduct, from false speech, and from the use of intoxicants. As great as all this might be, it would be even more fruitful if one would develop a mind of loving-kindness even for the time it takes to pull a cow's udder. And as great as all this might be, it would be even more fruitful still if one would develop the perception of impermanence just for the time it takes to snap one's fingers."
For the Buddha, it is very good to give generously to others who are still unaware of the truth about the world, it is better to give generously to those who are aware of the truth about the world so that they can be supported on their way to leaving behind the cycle of death and rebirth, and it is best of all to begin the liberation of our own consciousness from our obsession with pleasure and pain.
This is how we begin to destroy the dark and bright karma that leads to our continued participation in the cycle of death and rebirth. In the end, the Buddha's teaching on karma is given to us because we need to understand karma so that we can let it go.
By Stephen Shephard - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1130661