What is karma?

- through Francois Leclercq

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Definition of an essential notion in Buddhism, on which its ethics are entirely based.

This notion was already widespread in Indian society several centuries before the Buddha, and shared with other spiritual traditions, both Brahmanic orthodoxy based on the Vedas and Upanishads, and heterodoxies not accepting the authority of these sacred scriptures, such as Jainism, fatalism (Âjîvika), materialism (Cârvâka) and skepticism.

The term karma in Sanskrit (kamma in Pali, yè in Chinese), whose root is kr meaning "to do, to act", designates the action of each individual, which, due to the law of cause and effect (or the retribution of acts) , has consequences in his present life and in his future lives. It therefore underlies samsara, the cycle of rebirth to which all living beings are subject. It is in the nature of karma, and especially of the way out of samsara, that the points of view of these spiritual traditions differ.

In ancient Vedism, karma is the sacrificial act which, by virtue of the rita (the cosmic order), makes it possible to obtain the benevolence of the gods, whereas in Brahmanism, based on the Upanishads, karma corresponds to individual action of more transcendent scope, determining the position of each in subsequent rebirths. Only a rebirth in the superior caste of the Brahman priests allows, thanks to the ritual formula of which they are the exclusive holders, to leave samsâra by the union of the individual soul (âtman) with the universal soul (brahman).

In Jainism, karma is of particular importance, because generated by all acts, even involuntary ones, it sticks firmly to the individual soul and accumulates gradually, resulting in multiple rebirths and persisting with them. The only way out of samsâra would be to stop all action and thus exhaust one's karma, by practicing asceticism and strict observance of the rules of conduct, in particular ahimsa, non-violence towards all living beings.

Control your karma

Buddhism offers a different interpretation of karma, which at the same time constitutes a real turning point in the evolution of Indian thought. For the Buddha, what matters is the intention of the act, not the act itself. An involuntary act is not karma. As he said, “It is volition (cetana) that I call karma. For through volition one acts by means of body, speech, mind” (Anguttara-nikaya). What is important in karma is its psychological dimension, as a cause and as a consequence”.

The major contribution of Buddhism has been to show man that he is solely responsible for his destiny.

The second particularity of karma according to the Buddhist conception is the creation of a karmic force, leading to a consequence which is good, favorable, delivering suffering (kusala), or on the contrary bad, unfavorable, at the origin of suffering (akusala). An act having a consequence that is neither good nor bad, karmically neutral, is therefore not karma.

Thus for the Buddha: “Beings are owners of their karma, heirs of their karma; karma is the womb from which they are born, karma is their friend, their refuge. Whatever karma they achieve, good or bad, they will inherit” (Majjhima-nikaya).

The major contribution of Buddhism has been to show man that he is solely responsible for his destiny. By not undergoing his karma passively and randomly as in Brahmanism, by not restraining himself in inaction and asceticism as in Jainism or fatalism, but by voluntarily controlling his karma by the triple discipline (morality, meditation and perfect knowledge) taught by the Buddha. At the same time and surreptitiously, this pragmatic approach has shifted its focus to deliverance from suffering (dukkha), which is very real and present, rather than to the hypothetical and distant exit from samsara.

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Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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