Karma Revero

In the latest AMA, Anirudh asked:

How do you see the concept of karma?

Do you believe in the principle of karma, as a theory of a chain of cause and effect in human life? Or do you believe in the cycle of rebirths and karma, until one attains moksha?

I am asking since your blog is titled “Life is a Random Draw”, but the tagline says “It’s all Karma”. They are kind of like the opposite of each other, aren’t they?

In reply, I quote myself from a Aug 2013 post, “The Unbearable Collective Stupidity of the Masses.” Begin quote.

People often mistranslate the world karma, to say nothing of the misunderstanding of the concept. Karma definitely does not mean ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’ in the sense that things are fated or predestined. In fact, it means precisely the opposite. Karma means that it is our actions that determine the future, that what we do matters and has consequences. The concept is a general formulation of the fundamental law of action and its consequences, a specific instance of which are Newton’s laws of motion. Therefore it is the ultimate statement of “The Buck Stops Here.” And so when one says, “It is all Karma”, one is acknowledging that what we do matters and we are ultimately responsible for what we enjoy or suffer.

Endogenous and Exogenous Suffering

It was in the quest to understand the nature and causes of existential suffering that the prince Gautama became the Buddha. The Buddha’s realization was that to break free of suffering, one has to follow what he called the Noble Eight-fold path. Look it up for details. The short form is that do the right action and the cessation of suffering follows.

The suffering that the Buddha showed a way out of is not our mundane material suffering. His inquiry related to a much broader definition of suffering than just the lack of stuff that makes our material existence harder than it ought to be. Suffering arising out of material deprivation is the easiest to fix and given that the Buddha walked the earth within the confines of present-day India, one would have expected India to be the last place to suffer materially.

Be that as it may, suffering is a consequence of wrong actions. While this is true both at the level of the individual and at the level of the collective, there is a distinction. The individual suffers not only the consequence of his own action (which I term “endogenous suffering”) but also the consequence of the collective that he is part of (which I term “exogenous suffering.”) In other words, individual suffering is partly due to individual karma and partly due to collective karma, and collective suffering is entirely due to collective karma.

The accident of birth determines how much collective or exogenous suffering one is subject to. If you are lucky to be born in a developed nation, most of what you suffer is probably your own karma. But if you are unlucky and are born in a desperately poor country — such as India — regardless of how wonderful your own karma or action is, you nevertheless will suffer the consequences of collective karma.

End quote.

Karma is the action that you perform, and the consequences of your actions unfold over time. Your actions are the cause and the consequences that result are the effects. Maybe the consequences are transmitted across lifetimes, maybe there is no enduring self (anatman, in Buddhism), maybe there’s reincarnation, etc. We don’t really know and perhaps can never know. But for the here and now, karma makes sense.

What about life being a random draw? Yes, it is. One does not get to choose where, when and to whom one is born. It’s a random draw. And once once you are born, you get to act within the constraints that the random draw imposed on you. It’s all karma, neh!

Author: Atanu Dey


2 thoughts on “Karma”

  1. Thanks for the reply.

    This agrees with my own understanding of karma – we do not decide how the cards are dealt to us, but we get to choose how we play them once they are dealt. Our actions, of course, are constrained by the random draw of cards that are dealt.

    I have not formally studied Buddhism but have casually perused it. I have a question which I wonder if you could answer(It is okay if you can’t or do not want to answer them) – As per the sutras of the Buddha, the three basic marks of existence is anatman, anicca, and dukkha. Now without getting into the merits or demerits of each of these concepts, one question that occurs to me is, if anatman is a fundamental mark of human existence then how exactly does the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dalai_Lama#Searching_for_the_reincarnation) and the Panchen Lama( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panchen_Lama#Name) happen. If there is no sense of self, then what is getting reincarnated?


    1. The concept of reincarnation or rebirth in Buddhism, although derivative of Hinduism’s idea of reincarnation, is strictly different from Hinduism’s because there is an atman in Hinduism but that is denied in Buddhism because of the idea of impermanence. So if there is no abiding, permanent atman, what is it that gets reborn? The answer is somewhat complicated and is given by the concept of “dependent origination.” The dependent origination theory holds that things don’t have independent existence. The existence of something is because other things exist. That exists because this exists. The self does not exist independent of causes. It’s all a web of interdependent things. At death, although the being dissolves, what continues are the interdependent influences that give rise to another being. There’s continuation of causes. An analogy is that if you light a candle with another candle, the flames in the two candles are distinct but there is a continuity.

      I think of the soul as a collection of ideas. The collection of ideas grows with time in an individual’s brain. When the individual dies, when the ideas again find expression in another body, one can say that there is rebirth. There is no permanent soul but there is a continuation of births and death.

      Tibetan Buddhism considers that some souls are reborn intact. Unlike ordinary souls, the souls of important lamas get expressed in their totality, like the Panchen Lama and the Dalai Lama. These are too complicated for my simple mind.

      I would recommend Alan Watts for understanding some of the basics of Buddhism. Check out his talks on YouTube.


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