Can Karma be Explained?

Thursday 10th Nov 2008 we enjoyed a dhamma talk by Thai monk and clear thinker Phra Bhasakorn. The topic was Karma, a subject he has written a lively little handbook on in English. bodhgaya-hall-karma


Was Karma Explained?

Karma is probably the most slippery of all the topics in Buddhism. The Buddha himself taught that even the arahants, those with immense psychic powers cannot see the full range and extent of Karma and its operation. But he also included it as part of Right View – the proper outlook that one needs to have before engaging in meditation. This gives karma a unique place in the teaching. You are supposed to accept it on faith.

You are the owner of your karma,
You are the heir to your karma,
born of your karma,
related to your karma,
abide supported by your karma,
whatever karma you shall do,
for good or for ill,
of that you will be the heir.

This should be reflected upon again and again by one who has gone forth [ordained]

Even if you cannot read your past and future karma, the reason it plays such a huge part in Right View (the closest Buddhism comes to a dogma) is so that you are careful of your actions. It is always tempting to feel that some things you can just ‘get away with’. It is always tempting to do the wrong thing just this time. Accepting karma means you are careful with your actions.

 The Old Problem

The problem is of course, that people seem to thrive on bad karma, and others, innocents like children in Africa, seem to suffer when not doing anything wrong. The only way this can be justified is to assume previous karma that cannot be seen. It makes a certain kind of sense, an unsatisfactory sense just like saying that God takes care of everything. It is hardly testable empirically. Thus in our presentation a few days ago, some nifty graphics demonstrated how karma comes hounding us from previous lives that we cannot see. Now we have added a new layer to the problem. Not only do you have to believe in karma, but also in past and future lives.

Can everything be attributed to karma?

In fact three wrong views were listed by the Buddha:

  1. Everything arises due to God
  2. Everything arises due to chance
  3. Everything arises due to karma.

So we cannot really even say what is karma and what is luck. If you are hit by a car tomorrow and injure your leg, is that karma, or luck? (Lets cut the God option from the equation). Some of us feel that karma is your mental training. It might be sheer bad luck that your leg was broken, but the way you have trained yourself, trained your mind, governs what kind of reaction you have to it. Are you accepting, screaming, fighting, blaming forgiving? These reactions, some say, are your karma. This view is supported by a rarely mentioned passage in the Katthavattu, one of the Abhidhamma books that dates from the time of Asoka. It states that karma can only be experienced mentally, not as physical occurrences.


This psychological view is not the mainstream however. Most karma proponents feel that all the things that happen to you are likely to be karma. It gets very complicated then – is the driver karmically driven to break your leg? Are you going to break your leg even if you somehow avoided the car? Who can say. Some suttas do support this kind of karma. For example, if you take many lives in this lifetime, you will be short lived in the next. If you harm beings in this lifetime, you will be sickly in the next. If you are generous in this lifetime, you will be wealthy in the next. What do you think? Is this true or a later addition to the suttas by monks who came a hundred or more years after the Buddha, who were trying to make sense of the teachings?

One of the more mythological claims is that making an offering to a Buddha, an arahant, or a worthy person has more good affect than offering to a common person or a criminal. This seems to be lacking in compassion. But we have to be careful in over rationalising the Buddha’s teachings. It would be nice if everything made sense, but sometimes it does not. So it pays to be clear on what was taught whether you agree with it or not. It is ok to leave parts of the teachings without understanding it all. After all, that is the fun of being on the path.


One of the attractive features of Buddhism is that it should be testable. You are not asked to believe much to get to enlightenment. Karma is one of the things that can be penetrated to in meditation, even if not in its ‘full extent’. The Buddha’s own enlightenment came after three insights :

  • Looking through thousands of past lives
  • Seeing the karma of beings being born and dying in the realms from heavens to hells
  • Seeing and knowing the end of the asavas (=tasting enlightenment)

These three insights are things we are repeatedly told, lie within the scope of deep meditation if you are able to train your mind to that extent. Many people can attain to this; present day included.

The Wrap-up

Karma is one of few things that we are asked to take on trust, until our meditation develops to the point where we can see and know (~naana dassana) for ourselves. This trust is not so much as a belief, but a working hypothesis. The benefit is that such a view helps to govern your behaviour, setting up a favourable mental environment for meditation. Do good, refrain from evil, purify the mind is the summary of the Buddha’s teaching. It seems pretty clear what we are supposed to do, even if it is not possible for the ordinary man to see heavens and hells. Could a belief in God have the same effect? You can’t understand God, but can accept  He wants you to behave. Seems similar.

3 replies on “Can Karma be Explained?”

  1. Christmas Karma:

    ‘You are fettered,’ said Scrooge, trembling. ‘Tell me why?’

    ‘I wear the chain I forged in life,’ replied the Ghost. ‘I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?’

    Scrooge trembled more and more.

    ‘Or would you know,’ pursued the Ghost, ‘the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have laboured on it, since. It is a ponderous chain!’

    —from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

  2. How many people, historically and at present, have LAUGHED their way into nirvana? Any body know?

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