Karma is Not Fate: Why Karma is Empowering. Why do bad things happen to good people? How can we escape the wheel of suffering?

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    Why is Karma empowering?

    One way of viewing Karma is as an aggregate of all of our actions, thoughts, words, dreams, desires into a user-controlled version of fate — that is you control your fate instead of some invisible higher being.

    Another concept of karma, aligned to both mystical sciences and scientific mysticism (Quantum Physics), is that karma are the empowering energy connections that bind us to the universe through all of time and space. Then, there is the simplified notion of karma: every deed has a consequence. Even the most basic karmic concepts still align well with basic physics: for every action there will be an equal and opposite reaction.

    Rebirth wheel and reincarnation cycle
    Spectacular tangkha of the wheel of suffering, illustrating samsara and rebirths in various worlds, a concept bound up not only in Buddhism, Hinduism, Janaism and Taoism—but given credibility (the concept of rebirth) by scientists.

    Buddhist belief in karma is rooted deeply in teachings on Samsara, the Buddhist Wheel of Life and the important concept of attachment as a root cause of suffering. You don’t have to literally believe in rebirth, the principal of cause and effect influencing future suffering, to appreciate the elegance of karma as a concept. This is beautiful illustrated in various stunning and frightening depictions of the wheel of suffering (top image.)

    Why Karma is actually empowering

    Karma is an empowering concept, unlike the belief in fate that grew out of ancient Greece, or the Biblical belief story of Job that illustrates how helpless man is against the will of God. With Karma, we are in the “driver’s seat” not a god or some whimsical “fates” playing around with our destiny. The formula is an easy one. Good deeds and merits bring auspicious consequences; negative deeds result in negative outcomes — in the end.  The “result” is rarely immediate, but it is certain. The good news — we can control our own outcomes.

    Buddhism teaches Karmic consequences. Buddhism also has remedies. For example, mindfulness can be a remedy for negative karmic actions — if we are mindful, we will not trigger negative actions. Mindfulness, or staying in the present, is a remedy for clinging. If we don’t dwell on happy or sad memories, what is there to adhere to? If we don’t hope and dream about a better future, what is there to be worried about? Understanding karma, likewise helps us move past attachment to ourselves, and generates a genuine compassion for everyone else.


    Buddha Weekly 2Monks Buddhist receiving alms gives opportunity for lay believers to practice generosity
    Practicing generosity creates positive karma. Here, a kind lay-Buddhist gives alms to three monks who, like the Buddha, eat only before noon and only from food given to them. Merit for good deeds is an intuitive concept in karma.

    Karma is not fate

    If you believe in fate, you believe we are helpless. This is not a Buddhist concept. Buddhism, ultimately is a very practical, and also individual-centric practice in the sense that we all have the potentiality to be Buddhas or Bodhisattvas. And, we achieve that through adhering to various precepts which also help us overcome both clinging and karmic consequences. If we follow the precepts, karmic consequences are positive.

    Buddha, ultimately, taught a self-help path to Enlightenment. Understanding karma, we can develop many important insights. Living mindfully with Karma, we can rapidly move along the self-path to Enlightenment.  Siddartha Gautama Buddha showed us that understanding karma is empowering. Buddha gives us hope that no matter what negative karma we have accumulated in this, and previous, lives, it can be overcome.


    Buddha Weekly 3Monks in Buddhist Monestary Temple praying
    Both lay Buddhists and monks benefit from the practices of meditation, mindfulness and “Right Action”.


    The EightFold Path and Four Noble Truths

    The Eightfold Path is Buddha’s prescription for an end to suffering. Shakyamuni Buddha taught the “middle way”, avoiding extremes, based on the Four Noble Truths:

    1. Life is suffering.
    2. The origin of suffering is wrong knowledge, which results in misunderstanding (ignorance), attachment (craving), and aversion.
    3. The cessation of suffering is attainable.
    4. The Eightfold Path leads to the cessation of suffering.

    The Eightfold Path, bound up in the important concept of karma, teaches two wisdom, three ethical and three mental development methods for generating positive karma and escaping the Wheel of Suffering:

    • Right View
    • Right Intention
    • Right Speech
    • Right Action
    • Right Livelihood
    • Right Effort
    • Right Mindfulness
    • Right Concentration


    Buddha Weekly 0m Buddha face enlgihtened face statue
    Buddha showed suffering beings a way to escape the Karmic Wheel of Suffering through the Eight-Fold Path: Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration. When we meditate on Buddha’s image with concentration, or practice mindfulness, or pray for the release of suffering for all beings, or practice metta (kindness) and generosity, we generate positive karma.


    Types of Karma

    Although there are slightly different interpretations of karmic types, varying somewhat from Vedic belief to Buddhist, the overall concept is similar across most people who practice with karma. Depending on your teacher or belief system there are basically four types of karma:

    • Sanchita Karma, which is the aggregate total of all of our action karma in previous lifetimes, which set the stage for our condition in the current life.
    • Praradha Karma, our past karmic consequences in the past actions of our current lifetime. Some practices, such as mantra practice, Vajrayana practice, and other advanced practices can actually help mitigate this karma, even though traditionally it is said that we can’t do much to alter events as a consequence of Praradha karma. Good deeds or positive karma can also help offset negative past karma.
    • Agami Karma are the actions in our present lifetime that will affect our future lives or incarnations — the Christian concept of “as you sow, so shall you reap” but advanced across future lives. Positive actions, following the precepts, charity, compassion, and practice all accumulate for optimum karma in future incarnations.
    • Kriyamana Karma is the most intense form of karma, the one we see in our daily lives, where our current actions (good and bad) result in immediate consequences. Negative actions may result in retribution. Positive actions may, in this lifetime, be returned in kind. It is also know as immediate karma.
    Buddha Weekly 4Monks praying Buddhism Buddha
    Meditation is an act of Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. Monks who have renounced worldly matters, practice the eight-fold path throughout the day, yet lay practitioners can equally practice Right Conduct in every action they take. Karma is cause and effect, by one definition. In this case, the Eight Fold Path causes positive karmic consequences, and—ultimately—a path to Enlightenment.


    Working with Karma

    The very concept of karma is encouraging, positive and uplifting, even if you come to realize you’ve accumulated negative karma. The very nature of karma shows us the remedy, both in this life and future lives. Truly repentant people who accumulate merit and good deeds without clinging to pride of accomplishment, can very well take charge of their positive future karmic outcome.

    A mantra practice, which also helps create focused mindfulness, can be a positive practice in remedying negative karma. Vajrasattva purification mantras, or any Yidam mantra, can be most effective if mindfully practiced. Compassionate acts, charity, avoiding killing (including the practice of eating meat, and mindfully avoiding killing insects) all help move karma from the deficit column, gradually but genuinely, into the asset column.

    Unlike fate, karma gives us hope, in this lifetime, and almost immediately, of a better life and lives for everyone.

    Ultimately, karma is empowering and inspiring.

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    Josephine Nolan

    Author | Buddha Weekly

    Josephine Nolan is an editor and contributing feature writer for several online publications, including EDI Weekly and Buddha Weekly.

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