The Evolving Understanding of Karma

Having spent most of the past decade outside the United States, it is easy for me to fall behind the curve on American popular culture. Usually this doesn’t feel like much of a hardship. I can’t name a single American Idol, and yet somehow still find the strength to face the day.

The problem is that when something good does come along, I seem to be the last one to find out. By the time I discovered “My Name is Earl,” the show had already been canceled, and Jason Lee had taken to working with animated squirrels.

Besides all the obvious things that made that show great, what I really liked was how the main character thought about karma. Just to recap, Earl Hickey wasn’t a Buddhist. He had discovered karma after being injured in an accident, but hadn’t been “born again” in any moral sense. What he knew was simply that bad actions produce bad results, and this was enough to convince him to change his ways.

This is exactly how many ordinary Buddhists — possibly most of them — thought about karma over the past two and a half thousand years. Karma was simply a matter of balancing evil deeds with good ones, and making sure that the second column was always a little longer than the first. (Some theologians know this as the doctrine of Vita est Lavorum) One very influential text called the Great Book of Cause and Effect has guided generations of Chinese readers with a guide to precisely how many points they would lose for committing various bad deeds, and what sort of good deeds they would have to do to get back on the right side of the balance. One of the good deeds, incidentally, is to reprint copies of the book.

Buddhism has no single dogmatic view of karma. Not only is Buddhism itself very diverse, but unlike Western religious traditions, it also accepts a certain fluidity to its teaching by assuming that individuals and entire societies will grow in their knowledge and thus gradually move towards an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the truth. The idea of karma can thus be interpreted in many different ways. The literal interpretation relates to death and reincarnation: a good person will be reborn into a better position, while an evil one will become a beggar, a dog, or even a demon. This idea of postmortem justice proved to be a very effective way of explaining social inequality. When women asked why they couldn’t become Buddhist monks, they were simply told “you must have done something in a past life to deserve your fate. Try a little harder, and maybe next time you will be reborn as a man.” Sometimes the payoff is more immediate. On a recent trip to Kyoto, I jokingly knocked a statue of the Buddha on the head with a bamboo cup. Ignoring the good advice of my lovely friend Misa (who was busy capturing the whole episode on video) that the Buddha doesn’t appreciate being knocked on the head, I neglected to apologize, and we went on our merry way. That very evening, I fainted in the middle of a crowded market and woke up in the hospital with a fractured skull and a permanent dent in my otherwise round noggin.

But karma does not have to involve divine forces. Many cultures draw a link between misdeeds and physical illness, but why bad behavior makes you sick is yet another matter for interpretation. When I was living in China, I became friends with an old farmer who had stolen some money from his neighbors, and immediately fell so ill that he could barely get out of bed. Doctors couldn’t help — he only recovered after returning the money and confessing his crime to the community. Everyone in the village knew this story, and most people felt that the farmer’s illness had been caused by a vengeful spirit. Others saw a much more straightforward chain of events: the farmer had felt so guilty and fearful that he could not eat or sleep properly. The only medicine he needed was to clear his conscience.

In addition to all of these, I would like to propose another interpretation of karma — one that is based on perception. One tenet of Buddhist metaphysics is that existence is consciousness — essentially that you are what you think you are. Since consciousness is constantly changing, one does not have to die to be reborn — each of us is continually reborn from moment to moment.

Simply put, karma is the tangible result our own deeds, intentions and emotions. You do not need to be a Buddhist to believe that karma exists, and that our existence emerges from it. We are indeed reborn out of karma, but the answer to the question reborn as what depends entirely on you.