In our world, everything is conditioned by the principle of cause and effect. This is reflected in many popular sayings: “What you sow, you will reap”, “What you give is what you get”, “what goes around comes around” and so on. But this is just the tip of the iceberg, a simplified understanding of the law of karma, and it is for this reason that some people ask: “Does karma exist?”.
For example, the same action, but performed in different circumstances, can lead to opposite results. And I’m sure you can find lots of examples of how “bad people” never get punished and “good people” always suffer.
In this article, I will share with you spiritual insights on why this happens by taking a deeper look at how karma works and if it’s really as simple as “what you give is what you get”?
If you’re wondering: “Does karma exist?”, this article will help you figure it out!
The Concept of Karma
Let me start with clarifying what karma is.
Karma is a Sanskrit term that literally means “action” or “doing”. In the Buddhist tradition, karma refers to action driven by intention which leads to future consequences. Each action can be analyzed through the prism of the four elements of karma:
- the object of the action;
- the action itself;
- the attitude to the action that has already been completed (judgment).
And only by the combination of all these four elements of karma can you fully determine what kind of action is committed, what consequences it can lead to, and even assume how soon a person will receive a reward/punishment (effect) for his action (cause).
The Four Elements of Karma
#1: The Object of the Action
This is the first thing we evaluate when we try to analyze an action. There is an opinion that our interaction with people, and in general with living beings, is due to karmic connections.
According to Vedic knowledge, anyone we can see, any living being that comes into view, has a karmic connection with us. In your life, you never meet or see people or other living creatures who wouldn’t have a karmic connection with you. Everyone we interact with in one way or another has a karmic connection with us from our past lives. It’s just that the intensity of these connections is different.
For example, a person with whom we just exchanged glances on the street has a weak karmic connection with us, and our parents are souls with whom a karmic connection has been formed over many lifetimes.
That is why in Buddhism, it is believed that we receive the most active and complete retribution for the actions committed against these three categories of beings:
- our parents;
- our teachers in the broad sense of this word;
- enlightened beings.
Meaning, the actions committed against these three categories of beings will have the maximum impact on us. If we do good, this good will multiply many times and, most likely, the reward will be faster than in other cases. If we commit evil against these categories, this evil will multiply many times and the retribution will also overtake us faster.
The sutras tell the story about a woman who donated the last thing she had to the Buddha — her cape. And the Buddha said to the kings and rulers who were present at that meeting: “This woman’s donation exceeds all your donations, for she gave the last thing she had.” And immediately the woman received a reward for her act — everyone who was present at the meeting gave the woman many precious gifts.
Thus, if we perform an action in relation to those people with whom we have a strong karmic connection, the reward for such an act will be much greater and will overtake us faster. It is believed that for the actions that we perform in relation to parents, teachers, and enlightened beings, we will receive a reward in this life. And if we do bad things against them, we will not be able to develop, even if we encounter the most powerful yoga practices.
Therefore, in order to have good karma, remember to always pay respect to your parents, teachers, and enlightened beings. And this respect should be sown not just in your actions but also in your thoughts and words about them (even when they cannot hear you).
The second, no less important, component is motivation. Paradoxically, actions can often look the same, but it is the motivation that determines how a given action can be characterized.
For example, I’m sure you’ve heard about brutal methods Zen teachers have been using for helping their students on the spiritual journey. Zen teachers have been using hits, jabs, and shouts to cut off a moment of thought. For the same purpose, they could through away a student from the window. As you can see, the action itself may look cruel, however, the motivation behind the action is noble. The Masters were not hurting their students out of anger or frustration but rather from the sense of compassion.
At the same time, we can see lots of violence in the world coming from anger, jealousy, hate, etc. In such cases, the motivation creates negative karma.
Thus, you can see that the same form of action can have radically different motivations that lead to different karma.
Now let’s talk about the action itself. People often believe that if you have the intention to do something bad but you couldn’t do it due to circumstances beyond your control, then it doesn’t count as a bad action.
However, according to the Divine Law, any action, complete or incomplete, causes the karmic effect.
During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said: “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ (Matthew 5:21) But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” (Matthew 5:22).
Thus, if a person has a desire to kill someone, but does not commit murder, for example, because of physical weakness or because of fear of punishment, it is not at all his choice, but rather it is just a coincidence. And if the circumstances had been different, he might well have carried out his plan.
Jesus also said: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ (Matthew 5:27) But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28)
Again, Jesus is talking about the fact that the inability to commit a vice does not release a person from responsibility.
We should always keep in mind that karma accumulates on three levels: the level of the body, speech, and mind. And if a person in his thoughts “executes” somebody — this is the same as he would do it on the physical level.
This is confirmed even by modern science – according to neuroscientist Jeremy Bennett, our brain does not distinguish real events from our fantasies and reacts to everything in the same way. Karma works the same way!
#4: Attitude to the Action
This is the final stage of creating karma. There is an opinion that even if a person committed the most terrible act against, for example, his parents and his motivation was the vilest, but after committing the act, he realized that he was wrong, and sincerely repented — this will facilitate the retribution for the committed act.
But this rule also works in the opposite way. For example, if a person made a donation, but his motivation was selfish, for example, he learned about the law of karma and purely out of commercial interests decided to donate money so that even more would return to him, then, in this case, such an attitude to the completed action will affect the final result: either the reward for the act will come much later, or in a much smaller amount.
The Philosophy Behind
There are many examples of enlightened beings and great teachers who have committed seemingly immoral and terrible acts. But it is important to understand that they see reality somewhat more broadly and act out of compassion for their students, so they sometimes use various radical means to help them develop.
For example, the story of how the great yogi Marpa “mocked” his disciple Milarepa. And at first glance, it may seem that Marpa was just a sadist. But looking at the situation from the perspective of the situation itself is the same as evaluating the overall picture from one piece of the puzzle. If we consider the entire history of Milarepa’s life, it becomes clear that by his seemingly cruel actions, Marpa freed Milarepa from his karma so that he could develop.
And perhaps the most important thing in our judgment of action is motivation. If we act out of good intentions, then our actions will always benefit others, and it is no longer so important who the objects of our actions will be and what our actions will look like for others.
And if you repent from what you have done, that can ease the accumulated karma. It is important that remorse is sincere and leads to actions that will allow you to neutralize the consequences of your “bad” actions as much as possible.
The reward from our actions, and how quickly the result will return to us, depends on the motivations and intentions mentioned above. And by analyzing your actions from the perspective of these four elements, you can manage your life.
Does Karma Exist?
Thus, karma does exist but the action itself is only the tip of the iceberg, it is only the form behind which the essence is hidden. And if you are judging actions only by the form, you can get only a very narrow perception, which may raise doubts that the law of karma even exists.