What is karma?

painting of a tibetan buddhist wheel of life

The Tibetan Buddhist depiction of the wheel of life, seen here in traditional Bhutanese style, depicts the six realms of existence that all sentient beings cycle through from one lifetime to another—god, demi-god, human, animal, hungry ghost, and hell-dweller. | MichaelGrantTraveler / Alamy Stock Photo

The Buddha’s interpretation of karma, a term and concept that actually predated the Buddha and has been used in various Indian religions, is widely translated as “action.” What he really referred to, though, was the cause of action: intention. On the night of his enlightenment, one of the insights the Buddha understood was that all beings arise and pass away according to their karmic conditioning—that is, the intentions that lead to action determine what happens to them and how they move through space and time. He also saw his own past lives stretching back for eons, and appreciated that the actions he took in each of those lives propelled him into the next.

The Buddha taught that while we each have accumulated karma from previous lives as well as from the present one, karma is mutable. Every moment is an opportunity to take positive action, to think, speak, and act in a skillful way that will lead us away from the clinging and delusion that keeps us mired in suffering. In other words, we can work with our karma to ensure a better future.

For present-day Buddhists who don’t buy into the idea of rebirth, karma can still serve as a useful principle for this life, and it’s at the very heart of the Buddha’s four noble truths and his path of practice. Even if one doesn’t expect to be reborn or get enlightened, if they live virtuously, the logic goes, that person and the people around them will feel better.

Temple

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