Karma is one of the most misunderstood concepts in Buddhist philosophy — at least by non-Buddhists. That is because the general idea, exemplified by the Biblical injunction, “As Ye sow, therefore shall Ye reap,” has been, over the millennia, many things to many people. As is evident from the quotation, it is not even exclusive to Eastern thought — and how could it be? It is so obvious, so clear to anyone who has thought about it, that it could only be a universal idea. The trick, as with most philosophical stuff, is to actually think about it.
Mark Twain once wrote, about an entirely different issue, that “Many commentators have shed darkness upon this matter, and it is thought that if they continue we shall soon know nothing at all about it.” That is certainly the case with karma, since we have the Vedic explanation, the Buddhist, the Hindu, and in modern times, the New Age definitions, along with the several explanations and names that accompany the idea in various other philosophies.
The most common current use of the expression seems to be in New Age thought, which tends to be a bit fuzzy, if I may say so. (I say this after some years of having pursued it down various paths, highways and byways, so I think I may go that far without being called biased.) Generally, I get the idea that to many, if not most, modern seekers, karma means that the ill we do follows us through this life and beyond, affecting the quality of this and subsequent incarnations until we have “worked out” the “bad karma” and redeemed ourselves — rather like some sort of worldly Purgatory. Given the strong flavor of Biblical thought that clings to virtually every form of neo-Pagan philosophy (180 degrees from something is still the same set of ruts), that is hardly a surprise. It is, however, unnecessarily complicated, and since Buddhists have no opinion about afterlife in general, rather thoroughly inapplicable.
My favorite explanation and, I believe, the one best exemplifying the Buddhist concept, is that mentioned by Jack Kornfeld in his excellent book, “The Eightfold Path for the Householder.” He quotes yet another teacher as saying, “To keep it simple, ‘karma’ means you don’t get away with nothin’.”
Like the interconnectedness of humans and other beings with the Earth and cosmos, the reality of karma is simple, and thoroughly non-mystical. If I am in the habit of allowing myself to live in anger, without exploring the reasons for and healthfully discharging it, I will tend to respond to the difficulties I encounter along the way with anger. That will engender anger in others, and insure that I do, indeed, reap what I have sown. By the same token, if I choose to live my life with patience, gratitude and kindness, I will reap that in return — not all the time, but more often than not. If I intentionally cheat others in business, I will need to spend an uncomfortable life watching my back — or paying someone else to do it. Karma is a matter of cause and effect: a generous, loving, forgiving, helpful person reaps those benefits in return. She attracts people with those qualities, and her own qualities nurture theirs. She is a nucleus for good.
The reverse, obviously, is also true.
If we accept the impermanence of things, we might as well accept that it is just as easy to be upbeat as downbeat. If “This too, shall pass,” then we can choose how we respond, in many cases, and practice will tend to make our responses more upbeat, more often. A half empty glass really is half full. Our discomfort with half empty glasses is in our own head, born of attachment to full glasses and — perhaps — to a mistaken idea that things should be “fair,” or that there is no such thing as enough. More attachments. Rarely do we need the full measure to satisfy our needs.
The trick, of course, is to be emotionally healthy — so that it may satisfy our wants.