Take Your Unwholesome Karma and Shove It

Still others commit all sorts of evil deeds, claiming karma doesn’t exist. They erroneously maintain that since everything is empty, committing evil isn’t wrong. Such persons fall into a hell of endless darkness with no hope of release. Those who are wise hold no such conception.
~ Bodhidharma

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When it comes to the concept and word “Karma” (aka: “Kamma”), you are bound to hear all sorts of explanations and definitions as to what it means.  To muddy the water even more, the word has become part of our modern everyday terminology and often used incorrectly as if it some supernatural power you have no control over.

So what is karma, how does it impact you, and why should you care?  Let’s find out!

Karma You Believe It?

The word “Karma” means “deed” or “action” in the ancient Sanskrit language and is a central teaching to all schools of Buddhism, and all teachings and interpretations of the Dharma.

Karma governs the concept of “cause and effect”, meaning that all “intentional” deeds produce results that the doer (“you”) will eventual feel.  Based on that fact, you would obviously want to do “good deeds” so that you would receive positive karmic effects.  Otherwise, any “bad deeds” you do would produce negative (unwholesome) karmic effects.  And it’s just not you who has Karma, but also other types of sentient beings, communities, countries, and even the earth.

There are three types of Karma as identified by the Buddha:

  1. Karma generated by the body (your actions)
  2. Karma generated by speech (your words)
  3. Karma generated by the mind (your thoughts)

This means any actions you intentionally do with your body, speech, or mind will create karmic results.

  • Wholesome karmic actions are based upon generosity, compassion, kindness, sympathy, mindfulness or wisdom
  • Unwholesome karmic actions are based upon greed, hatred, and delusion

There are four types of karmic results:

  • Negative Karma:  Actions that only produce negative karmic effects
  • Positive Karma:  Actions that only produce positive karmic effects
  • Both Negative and Positive Karma:  Actions that produce some negative, and some positive, karmic effects
  • Neither Negative or Positive Karma:  Also known as “karma without outflows” is the type of karma of enlightened beings

And remember, it’s what you intentionally do that matters.  For example, if you unintentionally stepped on spider, there is neither wholesome or negative karma in regards to that action.  However, if you are out to get the spiders at all costs, then it’s negative karma seeds you are planting.

Here is Alan Watts talking about Karma (two parts/videos):

Karma Again?

When it comes to the Buddhist concept of “rebirth”, Karma plays a pivotal role (if you don’t know what rebirth is about, read this article).  Essentially, we are caught in the endless cycle of birth and death (known as samsara) due to karma.

Ven. Master Hsing Yun explained:

All sentient beings are trapped in the ocean of birth and death due to their karma.  Karma is like the string that holds prayer beads together.  The string connects all the beads; likewise, karma connects our lives from the past to the present and into the future, continuously causing us to be reborn in the six realms of existence.

Karma, when the conditions are right, impacts our present and future rebirths.  Thus, it’s important to always create wholesome karmic actions, and not negative ones.  It is not until we can achieve awakening (enlightenment) that we can produce neither negative or positive karma (known as “karma without outflows”) and end the cycle of birth and death (known as samsara).

Watch Out, Karma Is Right Behind You!

Is Karma lurking around every corner?  Do you have to enter the Buddha’s witness protection program?  Just like Indiana Jones learned in the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, stealing produces unwholesome karma which he experienced pretty fast in the form of a huge boulder that raced towards him:

There are three things to know about karmic actions:

  1. Karmic causes don’t disappear:  When you intentionally create karmic actions (wholesome or unwholesome), there is no off switch
  2. No cancelling:  Creating positive karma won’t cancel out negative karma (e.g., murdering someone, then trying to cancel that negative karmic action by helping an old woman cross the street)
  3. Karmic results come either quickly or slowly:  Just like a plant, they can sprout fruit quickly, in a few months, or in years, depending on the conditions

It is important to note that “Karma” is not some retribution by a God or gods, some cosmic force, or being that decides what punishment you get.  Karma is entirely under your control, if you understand it and change your ways.  As Ven. Master Hsing Yun said:

The Buddha said that the cycle of birth and death is a delusion that we cling to because we are not able to see beyond it.  He said that we do not understand how to escape the cycle because we do not understand how it works.  More than anything else, it is karma that keeps sentient beings trapped in the cycle of birth and death.  However, if karma is truly understood, sentient beings can be liberated from this cycle.

So understanding you are note forever “chained” to unwholesome Karma is important:  you do have a choice on what happens to you, and ultimately that means an end to samsara…the cycle of birth and death.  It also means, if you are Indiana Jones, you can gain wholesome Karma through helping others, and the world, be a better place.

Go Bankrupt on Karmic Debt

So far, a lot of this can sound scary.  What if you have created a lot of unwholesome karmic actions in your past?  Are you “accumulating” karmic “debt”?  Here’s one great thing about karma:  you have the power of your own destiny.  Just like Sarah Connor said in the movie Terminator 2: Judgement Day:

The future is not set.  There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.

For example let’s return to Indiana Jones, while seemingly accumulating unwholesome karma at the beginning of his first movie, was actually a good guy.  He fought for what was right, saved lives, and his intention was to bring historical artifacts to museums for the world to see.  This allowed him to diminish any unwholesome karma he created, so anytime the ‘conditions’ were right for negative karmic results to appear in his life, they were less severe than if he was one of the evil Nazi villains he was always running into.

As Barbara O’Brien explained in a comment in one of her articles:

In Buddhism, it’s extremely important to understand that karma is not fate. Because you have done X amount of “bad” stuff doesn’t mean you have a karmic debt of X that you have to “work off,” in this life or another one. Karma can be changed at any time by one’s own thoughts, words and deeds.

So stop thinking about what happened in the past, and work on doing good in the present!  Ven. Master Hsing Yun explained it best:

Also, while negative karma and positive karma do not cancel each other out, the more good deeds we perform our negative karma will manifest as less severe effects, and our positive karma will ripen more quickly.  This is like adding fresh water to a glass of salt water:  the salt has not been removed, but the taste is much less salty.

Plant Some Wholesome Karma Seeds

Often in the Buddhist sutras, karma is typically called “seeds”.  This is because, just like seeds, they may be dormant for many years (or lifetimes) until the conditions are right for them to grow.  Karma works the same way by waiting in your consciousness (known as the Alayavijnana or “Store Consciousness”) for the right conditions to sprout up.

These seeds of your karmic actions are not just implanted in you, but others.  This wonderful video from Thailand (actually it’s a commercial) shows how the wholesome karmic actions of a restaurant owner came back to help him 30 years later (which was never his intention).

While one may look at this and think that karma is some ‘supernatural’ force that allowed him to benefit when he needed it, but it wasn’t.  In-fact, by planting the seed of kindness (wholesome karma) for the child who’s mother was sick, that same child devoted his life to saving others.  The child was impacted by the wholesome karmic actions of the man.

A great explanation of this is by Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh who explains that we shouldn’t always view Karma as “negative”:

Karma in Buddhism is action. Action in the form of the thinking. Thinking is acting. Speaking is acting. And doing things is acting. And every act has a result. That is Karma. And nothing can be lost. It continues always. The shameful action continues and if you perform positive Karma, it will continue very well if you help other people.

So Karma should be understood in a positive way also. To produce a type of loving kindness, compassion and understanding is a wonderful Karma that can bring happiness to so many people. To say something that inspires confidence and remove doubt and suffering, that is wonderful Karma. And to do something to help people suffer less, that’s wonderful Karma, and that Karma we encourage, and the Buddha always will produce this Karma during his whole life. So Karma should not be seen only as something negative. Why the negative Karma should not be continued, should not continue the cycle of Samsara. The good Karma should be included to be reborn and reborn because if you practice love and kindness, you produce love and kindness in your child, in your student. And if he continues, if she continues, she will practice love and kindness and will transmit to her children and that is why we encourage the continuation, the rebirth of the good things. We only want to discourage the continuation and the rebirth of bad Karma.

In one of my favorite books, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh went deeper on this (page 114 and 115) where he brought up the topic of Right Livelihood (of the Noble Eightfold Path).  In this, he explained that a schoolteacher who works to make their students lives better through love and understanding is right livelihood and is thus generating wholesome karma.  But what if the teacher eats meat, and thus means someone must be a butcher…and lives in wrong livelihood because they have to kill…and unwholesome karma is being generated.  Yet, if the butcher, or the son who inherits attempts to make the lives of the animals better, does his own slaughter to minimize cruelty, etc., still is generating an impression on his consciousness.  This is because even though his intention is “good”, it is still murder of a sentient being and impacts his practice of Buddhism (especially during meditation).  This is a delima, and Ven.Nhat Hanh says, because the person wants to be kind and take care of the animals, but also wants the regular income of the business.  He recommends:

He should continue to look deeply and practice mindfulness with his local Sangha.  As his insight deepens, the way out of the situation where he finds himself killing to make a living will present itself.

Planting Your Garden

Since you can’t get rid of any unwholesome karmic actions you’ve done, there is only one solution:  increase wholesome karmic actions and plant those seeds as often as you can.  Even if you don’t believe in rebirth, doing good…wholesome…things helps sentient beings, like people and animals.

Did you help someone change their flat tire?  Help someone pick up groceries after they broke their their shopping bag?  Help an animal get out of a busy street?  All are wholesome seeds.  Or do the most traditional and time-honored Buddhist activity:  giving.  It doesn’t matter if you don’t have Buddhist monks on alms rounds where you can give food, just give your time, money, effort, faith, and love to those who need it.  Everyone is experiencing dukkha (suffering, dissatisfaction, etc.) in one form or another, so do something to help them.  Just make sure you’re not doing it for any “selfish benefit” (even though you may want wholesome karma) because it’s your intention that matters.

To learn more about rebirth in Buddhism, and how Karma plays an important part (especially with the Alayavijnana or “Store Consciousness”), please read my article here:  http://www.alanpeto.com/buddhism/understanding-reincarnation-rebirth/

Will you be kind and give today? Photo by Photholic.com on Flickr


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This article was originally published on 16 Sep 2013, and last updated on 29 May 2017.

Copyright © 2013 by Alan Peto, all rights reserved.