What is Karma?

karma, you missed some peopleKarma is one of the words that you hear often; but, if you know what karma means, you rarely hear it used correctly. (Unless you use Reddit.com then karma has a whole different meaning.)

When you hear the word karma, it’s usually used to mean:

A force or action, by nature or the universe, that is vengeful towards a so-called or alleged social rule breaker.

“Tameka Raymond’s [the ex-wife of the singer Usher] son is declared brain dead, and folks are saying karma got her.”

A equal return, by nature or the universe, on an action done by the actor.

“I’m a true believer in karma. You get what you give, whether it’s bad or good.”

A way for one to perform self-flagellation for guilt.

“Suffering eco-karma for deciding to take a cab this morning. Gridlock and late. That’al teach me.”

(FYI all these statements were found within seconds of each other via Twitter.)

All in all, it seems like karma is some kind of vengeful phenomenon. All fine and dandy when the situations bandied about are as deep as the latest top 40 pop song. But what about this type of assertion of “karma”?

On the Puzzle Peace of Mind website the question below was asked and even though the question does not say “karma” outright, the code word is “punishment.”

“In trying to reconcile Buddhism with autism,  I was under the impression that in Buddhism, my son (who has autism) is being “punished” for something he did in a past life.   I couldn’t accept that of course.  I was given another theory.  Perhaps my son chose his current path, to live a life in a disabled body, in order to learn a lesson from the experience- to gain further enlightenment.  Any merit to that theory?”

It was directed at Dr. William Tuladhar-Douglas, at University of Aberdeen, a lecturer in Anthropology of Environment and Religions and the director of the Scottish Centre for Himalayan Research. One of his areas of study is Mahayana Buddhism.

Tuladhar-Douglas give one short answer and five long answers.

Annotated short answer:

“No, for a Tibetan Buddhist it doesn’t make sense to say your son has chosen a rebirth conditioned by autism in order to learn on his own behalf; but it does make sense to say that he has chosen a rebirth conditioned by autism in order to teach both others and himself. The difference is very important: only a being who has fundamentally altruistic motives can choose their own rebirth.

…the causal conditions that give rise to his particular birth are far too complex for any ordinary individual to assess. Popular beliefs may blame difficult lives on past misdeeds; but Buddhism certainly does not support that belief.”

Of the five long answers by Tuladhar-Douglas, it is the first two that may be the most important to understanding the idea of karma.


The first thing to get out of the way is the “it’s all because of past karma” theory. This is a kind of fatalism. …. While Buddhism does use karma to explain some events, it prefers common sense explanations. For example, injuries caused by ordinary natural causes (cutting your finger while preparing vegetables) are not attributed to karma (though the inattentiveness that led you to slip might be). Diseases are caused by dietary imbalance, bacteria and so forth, and the appropriate response is eating better, bed rest and fluids or what have you.

And two:

For Buddhists, it is the intention behind an action that generates karma, not the act itself. Past mental states – greed, anger, envy; courage, compassion, gentleness – bear fruit in present circumstances. Encountering present circumstances with mindfulness and compassion bears positive fruit in future circumstances, as well as advancing a person along the path to freedom.

Another way of saying what karma is can be found on the Access to Insight website, via an article written by Thanissaro Bhikkhu on karma.

“Buddhists, however, saw that karma acts in multiple feedback loops, with the present moment being shaped both by past and by present actions; present actions shape not only the future but also the present. Furthermore, present actions need not be determined by past actions. In other words, there is free will, although its range is somewhat dictated by the past.”

Karma, you’re doing it wrong

The third answer by Tuladhar-Douglas really gets to the heart of why the current way of thinking about karma can be seen as negative.

“A second theory to reject: “Disability/poverty/infant mortality and so forth is always a result of bad karma”. From (1) it may well be the case that some other causal factors are involved (such as post-natal mental disability triggered by disease); but much more importantly, the causal relations that bind all life together are so incredibly complex – taken across millions of individuals, undergoing millions of rebirths – that a simplistic explanation that blames a present difficult circumstance on some past moral failure is taken to be a sign of meanness on the part of the speaker.”

And, this way of thinking can even be destructive of self and others. Also from the Access to Insight website.

“In the eyes of most Americans, karma functions like fate — bad fate, at that: an inexplicable, unchangeable force coming out of our past, for which we are somehow vaguely responsible and powerless to fight. “I guess it’s just my karma,” I’ve heard people sigh when bad fortune strikes with such force that they see no alternative to resigned acceptance. The fatalism implicit in this statement is one reason why so many of us are repelled by the concept of karma, for it sounds like the kind of callous myth-making that can justify almost any kind of suffering or injustice in the status quo: “If he’s poor, it’s because of his karma.” “If she’s been raped, it’s because of her karma.” From this it seems a short step to saying that he or she deserves to suffer, and so doesn’t deserve our help.”

Karma is not fate, it is not vengeance and it’s not a very sexy concept unless you are into karmic feedback loops and correcting behaviors so they don’t happen again. Also, a better way of seeing a karmic feedback loop is:

“The nature of this freedom [karmic freewill] is symbolized in an image used by the early Buddhists: flowing water. Sometimes the flow from the past is so strong that little can be done except to stand fast, but there are also times when the flow is gentle enough to be diverted in almost any direction.”

The water is the karmic feedback loop. We can at times find ourselves able to divert the karmic loop and other times do nothing but let the karmic loop happen.  And even when you are letting the karmic loop happen, the knowledge that you know the loop is happening in the first place is the first step in learning how to divert the loop.


“If you’re suffering, you try not to continue the unskillful mental habits that would keep that particular karmic feedback going. “

Hopefully by now, you are well-informed on what karma is and hopefully you see your suffering or sometimes the suffering of others as a karmic opportunity.

And right now you have a great karmic opportunity to help others by spreading this post. If you see someone using karma in way that describes fate or vengeance, send them a link to this. Not only are you helping squash the misunderstanding of karma, you may also be helping someone begin their journey to diverting their karmic loop. (Also, by sharing, you are saving my sanity…)