The Buddha called the law of karma “the light of the world” because it illuminates how and why things happen in our lives. The force of karma is a fundamental principle underlying all Buddhist teachings, and our understanding of karma can help decrease our suffering and show us the way to greater happiness and freedom.
Once grasped, the law of karma seems an obvious truth. Yet I stumbled over it for years because seeing the world through this lens felt alien to my upbringing, my conditioning, and my experience. But as my understanding of karma and my confidence in its significance continue to grow, I enjoy sharing this teaching with others. Whether in my work as a dharma teacher, or at home with my two children, I endeavor to help others claim this wisdom teaching as their own.
Karma (kamma in Pali) is a Sanskrit word that literally means action, although technically it refers to volitional action. The word karma is often paired with another Sanskrit word, vipaka. Karma vipaka means action and result, and the law of karma is commonly known as the law of cause and effect.
According to the law of karma, it is not possible for actions and experiences to arise out of nowhere. Our actions in any moment are the result of prior actions and experiences. Likewise, it is not possible for actions to disappear without residue or result once the action is over. To think it could be otherwise, the Buddha explained, would be like believing you could toss a stone into a pool of water and not create a single ripple. Thus, our actions in any moment are not only the result of previous actions, but are also creating the conditions for future actions. The Buddha said, “If you want to understand the past, look closely at the present. If you want to understand the future, look closely at the present.”
We may experience the results of our actions almost simultaneously with the action, or the results can manifest days, weeks, or years later, or in a future lifetime. And our present experiences are the results of actions that occurred prior to this moment, perhaps days, weeks, or years ago, or in a prior lifetime. One does not have to believe in past or future lives to verify the law of karma. One needs only look closely, and with an open mind and heart, at how our experiences unfold in this lifetime.
One of the earliest opportunities I had to explore the law of karma with my children occurred a few years ago, when my son Emilio was nine years old and my daughter Claudia was five. Our dog Luna was our teacher. The younger of our two Border Collies, Luna was about two years old at the time, very active and full of puppy energy. Mostly white with black patches over both eyes and ears, Luna is a very beautiful and extraordinarily sweet dog. She frequently stops traffic and draws people out of shops and restaurants to admire her. Deeply loved by both children, Luna has always been an important member of our family.
One fall afternoon Luna came in from a brief romp in our backyard, and as I began to pet her, I saw streaks of fresh blood on my hand. Since she was not limping or in any apparent discomfort, it took me a moment to figure out where the blood was coming from and what had happened. She was bleeding from a wound on her hind leg, a wound so long and deep that I knew immediately it would need stitches. After I regained my composure and showed Claudia what I had discovered, we brought Luna to the nearby vet hospital. The vet examined Luna and told us she would need to be admitted to have the wound cleaned and sutured. Although Claudia and I were upset, we were also relieved that Luna would be home with us later the same day. We left Luna at the vet hospital and went to pick up Emilio from soccer practice. With great care so as not to alarm him, I explained what had happened. Through his tears I reassured him that Luna would be ok and that we would all go together after dinner to bring her home.
I decided on pizza dinner at a restaurant just a few blocks from the vet hospital, but when we called the hospital at the appointed time, they told us that due to another animal emergency, Luna was still waiting for her procedure. Disappointed, we returned home. When we next called the hospital, the vet was attending to Luna, and we were told she’d be ready to come home in another hour. Both children showered, brushed their teeth, and changed into their pajamas, by which time we were given the go-ahead to pick up our dog.
We had a joyous reunion with Luna in the waiting room at the vet hospital. Once home, we began talking about how Luna could have injured herself in our backyard, as the yard is clean, safe, and fully enclosed by a sturdy fence. Since their normal bedtime had long since passed, I assured them we could try to figure this out the next day.
The next morning when both children were in school, I slowly walked the perimeter of the backyard, looking for breaks in the chain link fence, sharp ends of branches on the ground, or some clue as to what had happened. Finding nothing along the perimeter, I walked throughout the yard, searching for evidence of how Luna could have injured herself. Again finding nothing, I reluctantly gave up and headed for the house. Along the way, I picked up the children’s bright yellow metal Tonka truck and carried it to the front of the yard where their outdoor toys are stored. Glancing at the Tonka truck in my hand, I noticed a huge tuft of Luna’s soft white hair caught in a corner of the truck’s dumpster. Luna had cut her leg on this toy! Most likely she had run into it at top speed while chasing a ball or responding to our call to come inside. Although relieved that the mystery of her injury was solved, I wondered how I would find the right time and the right words to tell my children. I was worried they would blame themselves for Luna’s injury.
I waited until the weekend when we could talk about this in a relaxed way, at a time when Emilio and Claudia were not exhausted from a full day of activities. We went to the backyard and I described how I had searched the yard, trying to figure out how Luna had cut herself. Then I showed them what I had found: the Tonka truck with the large clump of Luna’s hair still stuck in its corner.
They both became upset, partly because they could now more vividly imagine what had happened to Luna, and partly because, as I had expected, they felt responsible. Claudia looked wide-eyed and frightened. Emilio was sobbing and repeatedly saying that Luna’s injury was his fault. I sat silently until they were calmer. Then I asked if they wanted to hear about a very special teaching of the Buddha that might help them better understand how they were feeling. They wanted to know more.
I began by introducing the concept of cause and effect, and they readily identified various examples of actions being paired with their respective consequences. In this case, Luna having cut herself on the Tonka truck was obviously the result of the toy having been carelessly left in the middle of the yard. In simplified terms, I explained the law of karma: there are three types of actions, there are three parts to every action, and different types of actions have different results. The three types of actions are physical actions, or all the things we do with our body, verbal actions, which include the words we say and how we say them, and mental actions, also known as thoughts. (Although I didn’t say this in my explanation to them, I always think of Thich Nhat Hanh’s observation that we are easily confused about what we possess, as illustrated by common expressions such as “my car,” “my house,” “my husband,” “my children,” or even “my body.” He reminds us: “My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.”)
The three parts of every action are the intention that gives rise to the action, the action itself, and the result of the action. Of these three, I have found intention to be the most misunderstood, probably because we often use intention as a synonym for goal. For example, when I call my friend Nancy on the phone, I might say that the intention of the call was to invite her to dinner. But in the context of the law of karma, intention is not the purpose of the action. Rather, intention is the state of mind and heart that is present at the time I initiate and carry out an action. Using the above example, there are various possibilities of what my intention was. Lovingkindness is one possibility, if I enjoy preparing food for Nancy and wish to spend time with her again. Jealousy is another possibility, if a mutual friend of ours recently invited Nancy to her house and I am envious of their relationship. Guilt could be another, if Nancy has invited me to her house many times recently and I feel obligated to reciprocate. It is often impossible to know what the intentions of other people’s actions are, and without mindfulness, we may not even be aware of the intentions of our own actions.
The Dalai Lama uses the word “motivation” instead of intention, and Thich Nhat Hanh uses “volition.” Like intention, both words refer to the state of mind and heart that gives rise to an action. We can choose whichever term makes the meaning most clear and accessible to us: intention, motivation, volition, or state of mind and heart.
The Buddha said that intention is like a seed, and the action that arises from the intention is the fruit that the seed produces. With this metaphor, we are reminded not to underestimate the power of even the smallest seed; within the acorn is the potential for a huge oak tree.
To take this metaphor one step further, we can see that any particular seed can give rise only to its respective plant. If we plant an apple seed, we can only get an apple tree. We cannot grow an orange tree or a mango tree from an apple seed. And no amount of manipulation or complaining or attempting to change the result can produce anything different than an apple tree. As it is with seeds and their respective fruits, so it is with our intentions and the actions that our intentions produce. My children easily understood this metaphor. They each had plenty of experience, in school and at home, with planting seeds and carefully watching their seeds grow.
Next, the law of Karma describes two major categories of positive and negative actions. Positive actions, also called skillful, virtuous, or wholesome, are actions that contribute to one’s own and others’ happiness in this lifetime, and create conditions for a favorable rebirth in future lifetimes. Negative actions, also called unskillful, unvirtuous, or unwholesome, are actions that increase suffering for oneself and others in this lifetime, and create conditions for a less favorable rebirth in the future. And there is a small category of neutral actions, which promote neither happiness nor suffering.
A very important part of the teaching of karma, and perhaps the one that is most difficult for us to understand, is that of the three parts of an action, the most important part is the intention. The next most important part is the action itself, and the least important part is the result of the action. This is because the intention determines how ethical the action is, and whether the action ripens into happiness or suffering. An action arising from a wholesome state of mind and heart such as generosity, love, kindness, empathy, or compassion, is by definition a “better” action than one arising from unwholesome or afflictive states of mind and heart like anger, greed, fear, confusion, jealousy, guilt, or shame. And equally important, it is the intention that we can potentially have the most control over. We have some control over the action itself, and very little if any control over the results of the action.
This part of the principle of karma proved very useful to Emilio and Claudia as they considered that their Tonka truck had caused the wound on Luna’s leg. They agreed that most everyone judges themselves and others primarily on the results of actions, and that in this moment they were judging themselves very harshly because leaving the Tonka truck in the yard had resulted in Luna’s injury. This is exactly backwards from the Buddhist teaching, which says we should evaluate our own and others’ actions on the merit of the intention first, then the action itself, and lastly on the result.
To bring this point home, I asked my children if they remembered playing with the Tonka truck a few days ago. They said they remembered playing with it, and that obviously it had been left in the middle of the yard. I asked them, “Did you decide to leave the Tonka truck in the middle of the yard and not return it to the storage area because you felt dislike for Luna in your heart?” Emilio and Claudia looked surprised as they considered my question. Then they replied, “Of course not! We love Luna and we want to take good care of her and protect her. We just forgot to move the Tonka truck out of the way.”
As they more fully digested this new understanding, I watched their facial expressions soften and their bodies visibly relax. I added, “Can you trust your love for Luna and forgive yourselves?” They thought this over, and said they could, at least a little. I reminded them of how important self-forgiveness is, always, and how awareness of a pure intention can make self-forgiveness a bit easier. And that everything about the law of karma applies not just to them, but to everyone—adults and kids alike.
Understanding the law of karma can help us move beyond guilt or denial and actually learn from our experiences. With this in mind, I asked my children what they thought we could do to ensure that this accident would not happen again. They decided that they needed to be very careful to return their toys to the storage area, and that if we ever found the Tonka truck in the middle of the yard again, it would be “banished” to the basement for one week. About a month later, the Tonka truck did spend a week in our basement, but it hasn’t seen the basement since. Luna has been safe in our yard, and I am once again deeply grateful and inspired by the rich legacy of the Buddha’s teachings.