From chapter 2 of Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo’s new book, Into the Heart of Life,
Let us explore the nature of karma, because I think karma is quite misunderstood in the West. There are various understandings in different religious traditions of the meaning of karma, but here we’ll examine the Buddhist understanding of the term. Actually, the word karma in Sanskrit means “action.” It also means “work.”
All actions we undertake not only with our body but with our speech and with our mind are expressions of karma. It’s the action part that counts, not the result.
The Buddha himself said that by karma he meant intention, chetana. Karma is intention. This means that every intentional action of body, speech, or mind plants seeds in our mind stream. Sooner or later, in that lifetime or in future lifetimes, those seeds will sprout and ripen. That ripening is called vipaka, which means a result of the karma. And that is what we experience. We have to understand that karma isn’t some kind of overpowering or all-pervading fate. The little seeds planted in the past are eventually going to sprout up. How and when they sprout is undetermined.
When the Lord Buddha Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment it wasn’t just a sudden zap. It was a very gradual opening of the mind. In the first watch of the night as he sat under the Bodhi Tree in Bihar, he went back through all his previous births. He went through aeons and aeons of time, through devolutions and evolutions of the universe, back through billions of years, knowing: At that time, I was like this. At that time, I lived like this and then I died, and I was reborn like that. Time has no meaning on an absolute level, and so in a very short time he was able to experience all this. Then, in the second watch of the night—a watch is a three-hour period—his mind opened still further to encompass all beings: their coming into existence, their duration, their passing away and coming again into a new being. And in the third watch of the night, just before dawn, he realized the interconnection and the relativity of all things: interdependent origination. That is when he became a Buddha.
Nowadays in our very humanistic, scholastic mode we say, “Oh well, the Buddha talked about karma because it was the fashion of the day. You know, everybody in those days believed in karma, or many people did, so he just took it on board as part of his doctrine.” But it wasn’t like that. It was a part of his enlightenment to actually experience how beings come and how beings go, and how they are interrelated and interconnected—how karma works. Later on, his main attendant and and cousin, Ananda, said to him, “Well, karma is kind of complicated, but I think I got it now.” The Buddha replied, “Don’t even say that. The understanding of karma is the province only of the mind of a fully enlightened one.”
Only a Buddha can really understand karma, because only a Buddha can see the total pattern, the whole tapestry. We just see a tiny part, and on the wrong side usually—the side with all the knots and loose ends. And then we try to understand the total pattern from that tiny square, but how is that possible? We need to look at the other side at a distance in order to see how all those red and green and blue threads form a pattern. I don’t mean that our lives are already woven. We are continually weaving. That’s the whole point.
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