Karma. People ask: “What is Karma?” Karma is the drama of consequentiality. In the Eastern philosophies it is generally believed that there are consequences, even ones that do not seem to be, as we might say, scientific.

I was asked this question once when I was on a radio programme in Canada. The interviewer asked me: “Can you explain karma?”, and I told a story about the time when I had been at a big meeting, a huge crowd of us were gathered to listen to the Dalai Lama; and the Dalai Lama had been asked exactly this question. “Please, Sir, can you tell us, what is karma?” and the Dalai Lama had jokingly said: “Ooh! Much too difficult! Much too difficult a question!” Everybody had laughed! So, I told the story and said: “Well, if the Dalai Lama can’t explain it, perhaps this is too much for me to explain.” And at that point, in the studio, I was sitting on a little chair, and the chair collapsed and I fell to the floor, and I got myself up, and I had the presence of mind to say: “There you are, there is karma! You make a joke at the expense of the Dalai Lama and your chair collapses. What more do I need to say?” Well, of course, this caused some merriment as well.

More seriously, though: The Buddha was a reformer of the idea of karma. Many people believed and still do believe that the idea of karma is that the position that you are born into in this life is a result of your past actions and, therefore, you should never change it; that this is your fate, your destiny, you are stuck in this position in the social structure because of your actions in past lives. This is the basis of the caste system in India, and there have been such caste or class systems in many countries. There is a class system in Britain, and there was a feudal system, which, in effect, had castes, in Japan at the time of Honen and the birth of Pureland Buddhism in Japan.

But the Buddha said “No! The meaning of karma is not to do with your birth status and how that determines your fate. The meaning of karma is that a person should be judged by their actions. It doesn’t matter whether the person is high status or low status. If they do good things: good results. If they do bad things: bad results.”

So, the Buddha’s interpretation of karma was liberating. It meant that many things are the result of what you do in this life. Whatever you are born into, you can do something with the life you have got. The first step is that you have to accept the lot that you have, but then, having accepted it, you then do everything you can with it. These are the resources that you have, with which to live a good and spiritual life. So, this was a challenging of the old idea.

The Buddha introduced into the theory of karma the importance of intention. What matters is that there is a good intention behind the action. That things have been as they are for a long time, does not mean that they will continue to be so. They all change. Impermanence is inevitable, but the way that they change will depend upon the intention of those who act. Whether they are new people, old people, high status people, low status people – what matters is the intentionality, the intention with which they act. Act with a good intent and good things will happen, and the future which will be based on the past but will nonetheless be completely new, will depend upon those intentions.

Namo Amida Bu
Thank you very much



There is another podcast (#54) on karma. Follow this link to read the transcription. 


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