Simply speaking, karma means “deed.” This means an action that is undertaken with a particular will, motive or purpose. All of our intentional actions are “karma.” Any deed is invariably accompanied by a result. All that we are and who we are at the present moment is the result of karma—the consequences of our deeds in all of our past lives. For example, the fact that you are reading this webpage at this moment is the result of the causes and conditions created by the accumulation of various past deeds. Although each person’s circumstances differ, the result of various past deeds has produced your present circumstances. The phenomena that the results of our past deeds leave behind as a residue is called a “reward” or sometimes “recompense.”
Karma is a complex and serious matter. Our deeds, however trivial, leave behind physical, mental and environmental traces. Those left in our minds include memory, knowledge, habits, intelligence and personality, which are all the product of our experiences and deeds accumulated over a long period of time. The traces our deeds leave on our bodies are so apparent that it makes sense to everyone: for instance, when overeating or excessive drinking leads to sickness, and conversely when the proper amount of exercise leaves us healthy and physically fit.
Our attitudes also leave traces on our bodies. The most obvious are those left on our faces. You will notice that there tends to be a dark shadow in the face of a mean-spirited person, no matter how handsome or beautiful they may be. The expression of someone who is always angry eventually turns grim. Gentle, knowledgeable, commanding or virtuous people somehow look happy, intelligent and dignified, even if their features are not particularly striking in and of themselves. In short, as people get older their mindset naturally appears in their faces. This is what Abraham Lincoln was referring to when he famously said, “Every man over forty is responsible for his face.”
Part of the traces left behind by the activity of our minds (i.e., mental karma) as well as our deeds remains on the surface of our minds, including the aforementioned memory, knowledge, habits, intelligence and personality. Another portion remains within our subconsciousness, in the hidden depths of our minds. Moreover, all of the influences of the outer world that have gone unnoticed to us, and all our experiences we had before our births in this lifetime (indeed, since the evolution of human beings), lay submerged in our subconscious minds. Karma includes all these influences. Although it is defined it above simply as “our deeds,” karma implies the accumulation of all of our experiences and deeds since the birth of humankind, and even since before that time. This is known as “karma from previous existence.” The workings of this karma is called the “power of karma.”
The “power of karma” can be explained extremely well by the activity of the evolutionarily older portions of our brains. To give an example, when we see a totally harmless animal such as a lizard or a rat snake, for some reason or other many of us experience feelings of revulsion and fear. Evolutionary psychologists theorize that these responses are the mammalian memory, latent in our brain structures, of being hunted and consumed by reptiles when those creatures ruled the earth hundreds of thousands of years ago. Even though we rationally understand that lizards and rat snakes have neither poison and nor will they strike us, we somehow fear them.
In this fashion, things that our mammalian ancestors experienced hundreds of thousands of years ago remain in the depths of our minds, to say nothing of the even stronger influence of the deeds and attitudes of our more immediate ancestors of only several decades or generations before us.
The “karma from previous existence” is still more profound, however, as it includes the karma our own stream of life has created in the course of repeating birth and death from the infinite past.
What does the concept of karma teach us?
We see that if we plant good seeds (causes), they will bear good fruit (effects), and we will inevitably reap the reward (results); the reverse is also true, of course.
Results, it should be noted, is meted out to oneself by oneself; it is not a reward or punishment handed down by some supernatural being. One’s own actions are the cause, which, acted upon by various conditions, finally takes concrete form for, or in, oneself—this is results.
As you sow, so shall you reap: this is the truth taught in the Buddha’s doctrine of cause and effect. It is a supremely clear and rational view of human life, a supremely optimistic and healthy view of ethics. Do good, and good results will invariably follow. We can create our own destiny.
We realize that the more wholesome the karma we accumulate, the happier we will become and the better the reward that we receive. This realization also gives us courage to accumulate considerable wholesome karma in the future. This is not just an issue for our present lives in this world. It also gives us hope for our future lives after our task in this world has come to an end.
For people unfamiliar with the teachings of Buddhism, there is nothing as terrifying as death. Everyone fears death. However, if we have an awareness of the workings of karmic consequences, when death inevitably comes we will be able to retain a sense of composure because we embrace hope for our life to come.
This is not simply a problem limited to just ourselves. When we reflect that our deeds exert no little influence upon our descendants, we naturally feel a sense of responsibility for our actions. It is important that parents maintain a positive attitude on life, in order to exert a good influence, akin to a karmic consequence or retribution, on their children. When parents understand this, they resolve to speak to their children using appropriate language, and raise them with the proper discipline and affection.