A gentleman called the Center the other day and asked if it’s possible to prove that karma exists. Karma is considered to be an extremely hidden phenomenon in that only a Buddha can identify the causes in a previous lifetime (or lifetimes) that give rise to a particular result in the present. Ordinary beings such as ourselves, can not remember our past lives so we are unable to pinpoint the reasons underlying our current experiences. A commonly given example is why do some people survive a plane crash when others perish? Why do some people seem to lead a charmed life – they’re attractive, talented, and wealthy?
Everything that we experience is created by karma — the fact that we’re humans, in this day and age, on this planet, down to the minutest, most mundane detail of our lives — all is the result of our previous actions. What is karma? Simply put, it is intention (or motivation) that prompts us to act in either a virtuous, non-virtuous or neutral manner. Everything we do has an underlying motivation, and for most of us, the majority of our actions are non-virtuous — we’re acting solely in a self-cherishing manner. As result, negative imprints accumulate on our most subtle consciousness leading to negative experiences in this and future lives.
Since only the omniscient mind of a Buddha can fully realize karma, it is more difficult for us to understand karma than even emptiness (Geshe Tenzin Tenphel, Institut Lama Tsongkhapa). How then can we be convinced that karma exists? Actually to understand karma at a gross level is not difficult. We can immediately see how we can upset someone by sending an inconsiderate email, or making a rude gesture. Conversely, we can make someone happy by simply listening attentively, or smiling.
We tend to get stuck in a rut and act in a negative way out of habit. The negative karma accumulated from habitual actions should not be over-estimated as habits can carry through to future lives. My parents, for example, have been married for 50 years and they always have the same argument – if my father is tied up doing something my mother considers unimportant, she let’s him have an earful and they end up having the same argument over and over again, it’s almost scripted. The karmic consequence of harsh speech is that you constantly hear unpleasant words and are attacked and criticized. By arguing, my parents are dragging each other to the lower realms.
Similarly, I heard about a man who drove a company commuter van. He wasn’t allowed to use the van for personal use. In the beginning, he’d just drive a few miles a week for his own personal use. When he didn’t get caught, he gradually drove more and more until eventually the company became suspicious and he wasn’t allowed to drive it anymore. So what seemed like a minor offense eventually became a bad habit and the result was that he almost lost his job. Since he committed the non-virtuous action of stealing, in future lives, he will be poor and nothing will belong to him, he’ll have to share things with others.
These are simple examples of how non-virtuous actions can have negative results. To witness karma in your daily life, you first need to be honest with yourself. Identify why you are acting in a certain way, is it self-protection, to get ahead, or to help someone in need? Examine how you relate to others around you. Do you tend to break off relationships when the other person starts getting a little too needy, or intrudes too much on your space? Do you have any real friends? Are you always pointing your finger at someone else more as the source of a problem rather than exploring your own mind? If you find yourself getting sick very often, or experiencing anxiety or depression, these are the karmic results of actions taken in past lives but also your present life.
While we can’t prove the law of karma by connecting the dots between a specific action performed in a past life and its ripening effect in the present, we certainly must take responsbility for our actions by relating our motivation to the actions’ consequences. Sometimes even when our motivation is pure — we’re really acting selflessfly, all kinds of obstacles arise. This is the result of past karma ripening. Still, in a general sense, we can say that karma exists even if we don’t understand all its complexities.
But what’s most important about having faith in karma is that it’s the foundation of ethical behavior. Only you can change your own mind. You can continue to experience the sufferings of samsara by acting non-virtuously. Or, by acting virtuously, you can follow the path to Enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings.
Do you think that karma exists? Has thinking about karma changed your life in anyway?
Suggested resources about karma:
- Geshe Lhundub Sopa “Steps on the Path to Enlightenment Vol 2: Karma” Wisdom Publications
- FPMT Discovering Buddhism at Home: All About Karma