What Karma Really Is

Category: Buddhist Path

Learn about karma and its effects - you can change your karma for the better

Planting Karmic Seeds (Can Meditation Practice Change Karma?)

People often refer to karma as either warranted or random, depending on the circumstances. When someone we don’t like experiences the negative consequences of their bad behavior, we celebrate, thanking karma for giving them their due. When negative consequences befall us, we say “this is just my karma” as if our circumstances are random, predestined and inescapable.

Logically, this makes no sense. Karma cannot be warranted in some circumstances yet random in others. There is no cause and effect relationship if a cause only sometimes, maybe results in an effect. If we’re to believe in karma, we must believe it’s functioning all the time. So then what is karma, really?

Karma is a profound and deeply nuanced world view at the foundation of Buddhist teachings. It describes the principles of cause and effect that underlie every single one of our actions as well as their fruits. Karma is not fate nor a trap from which we cannot escape. Rather, karma is the structure which makes transformation possible. We cannot change the past, but we can act differently in the present with an eye toward crafting a better future.

Understanding the connection between meditation and karma makes it possible for us to see how changing our minds can also change our lives. Karma is not a sentence handed down to us by some outside entity who is constantly watching our actions. Karma is the action itself, and it lives inside our own minds.

Karma is a Sanskrit word which can be translated to action. Without awareness, karma is more accurately translated as the compulsion to act. Typically, we act out of habit. We did something one way in the past and that makes it easier and more likely we’ll do it the same way in the future. The detailed workings of karma are described in the Buddhist teaching of dependent origination.

If we consider every action of body, speech and mind, we realize we act multiple times per second. With each act, we plant a seed. This seed can be positive, negative or neutral, depending not only on the act itself, but the intention behind it.

What happens, then, to all these seeds we’ve planted? The laws of karma are similar to the laws of cause and effect. Just as the seed of an oak tree can never grow up to be a maple, the positive seeds we plant can only ripen positively in our lives while the negative seeds we plant will lead to negative consequences.

If we truly believed in this cause and effect and realized it was ever present, we’d be far more mindful, taking care to plant nothing but positive seeds! But we’re compelled to act differently because of the seeds we’ve planted in the past. Meditation can help break this cycle.

Meditating for karma is about increasing the odds that we’ll act more kindly. By doing so, we cease perpetuating harm and stop planting negative seeds. Strengthening mindfulness and awareness allows us to slow down, pause and choose before acting. With a more clear and stable mind we’re capable of making better choices. We learn to act not out of habitual compulsion, but with awareness and intent.

Tending our Karmic Garden

Unfortunately, we cannot go back and change the seeds we’ve already planted. Actions we’ve completed in the past are complete. What we can do is plant more positive seeds in the present and by tending to them, make it far more likely they will quickly ripen into happiness and wellbeing.

We can also help purify past negative karma with practices that build merit. A meditation to clear your karma might look like a loving-kindness practice in which we focus on sending well wishes to someone we’ve harmed in the past. But cleansing karma doesn’t end with meditation.

Building merit is not just something we do with a mantra to remove bad karma, it’s about how we behave in the world. It’s hard to put an end to our bad habits, but we can make it easier by replacing them with good ones. For example, not only by refraining from the 10 misdeeds, but actively cultivating their opposites.

The seeds we intentionally plant and give the most attention to are those that are likely to ripen soonest.

Harvesting the Result of Our Actions

The movement of our mind compels us to act and every action in this interconnected world has a consequence. Without mindfulness and awareness, we barely notice. Bad seeds ripen all around us and we wonder why we’ve been so unlucky.

With the wisdom that arises from meditation, we become capable of separating thought from action. No longer compelled by an untamed mind, we act more kindly. As our behavior changes we experience the world differently. Our perspective and our thoughts begin to change. Wisdom and compassion develop, making it more likely we’ll plant positive seeds in the future.

This transformation is made possible in part thanks to karma. Karma is not separate from us, but takes place within. Karma depends on our own minds. Changing how we think, speak and act changes everything. For it’s only in the mind that karma is collected, and it’s in the awakened mind that the fruits of good karma are harvested.

If you’d like to improve your karma, check out our webinar on Karma and Its Effect.

About the Author: Sara-Mai Conway

Sara-Mai Conway writes articles about Buddhist meditation based on her practice and experience
Sara-Mai Conway is a writer, yoga and meditation instructor living and working in Baja California Sur, Mexico. Her writing and teachings are informed by her personal practice and Buddhist studies. When not at her desk, she can be found teaching donation-based community classes in her tiny, off-grid hometown on the Pacific Coast. Learn more about Sara-Mai Conway here.

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