Karma is one of two aspects of Buddhism that I have not been able to reconcile with my thinking, the other being a related phenomenon – reincarnation/rebirth. My understanding was only based on the limited reading I had done on the subject, this was something I hoped to correct in the medium term. But recently, a post on awareness by Umair Haque put Karma in a nuanced new light.
More searching (google, not within 😉 ) took me to Two Meanings of Karma. The author distinguishes between universal and psychological karma. The former is the cosmos driven moral justice model, probably influenced by the Hinduism version of karma, which I was finding difficult to reconcile. The latter is in line with the one Umair Haque has written about. Our innate sense of morality.
To quote from Umair Haque’s post,
Karma isn’t you “have” or something you “do”. It’s what you are….. Karma is all the concepts and notions you hold in that tiny little head. All those concepts are stitched together by the idea of “you”, right? So karma is all those concepts, together, which determine your intentions, actions, behavior, all of it.
These concepts (biases, beliefs, prejudices etc) therefore broaden or constrain how you react/relate to people, events etc, and thus play a crucial role in shaping your ‘reality’. That, in turn, affects your actions in the future, and so on. I can completely relate to that. In an earlier post on the trade-offs we make, I had referred to the ‘prison of our mind’ via Peter Ustinov’s quote – Since we are destined to live out our lives in the prison of our minds, it is our duty to furnish it well.
Karma is thus our mind’s dynamic narrative, constructed and reconstructed every time we take a conscious action. It is then not the cosmos that demands justice, but our own mind and its framework of right and wrong.
*translation of Dhammapada, verse 127 via
P.S. That does make me wonder – maybe there’s a possible hypothesis on the concept of rebirth as well – one that involves genes, free will and obviously this definition of karma. And one that can work without involving cosmology.