A Fresh Look at Karma

leavesby Toni BernhardBecause I’ve written two books on chronic pain and illness, I get a lot of emails from those who are struggling with their health. Many of them want to know why this has happened to them, but not to others. Based on the current understanding of karma that circulates in our culture, they’ve come to believe that their health problems are karmic retribution for some past bad action, and so they’re sick or in pain sick because they have to work off this “bad karma.” Thus, they believe that karma acts as a kind of external justice system where they’re doomed to suffer based on some bad act they can’t even remember committing.I don’t believe this view of karma is consistent with what the Buddha taught. The literal translation of karma from Sanskrit is “action,” but the Buddha often said that karma means “intention”:Intention, I tell you, is karma. Intending, one does karma by way of body, speech, and intellect. (AN 6.63) To understand what the Buddha meant, it helps to think of your actions as having two components. (The word “action” would include physical action, speech, and thoughts—the equivalent of “body, speech, and intellect” in the above quotation from the Buddha.)The two components are:(1) your “bare behavior,” and(2) your intention behind that behavior.What matters is not the bare behavior that constitutes your action but your intention in engaging in that action. And, as the Buddha said: intention is karma.For example, consider the physical action of wielding a knife. The bare behavior = wielding a knife. But the intention behind that action could be to perform life-saving surgery or it could be to stab someone in anger or to steal from him.The Buddha identified six intentions that are the motivating force behind people’s actions:• good-will (or kindness)• compassion • generosity• ill-will (or anger)• cruelty• greedNotice how the first three intentions mirror the last three: good-will/ill-will; compassion/cruelty; generosity/greed.Actions that are based on the first three intentions are non-harmful to yourself and others and result in relieving suffering. The intention of the surgeon who wields a knife in order to save a life is one of good-will, and perhaps even compassion and generosity.In contrast, actions that are based on the last three intentions are harmful. The intention of the person who wields a knife in anger or in order to steal from another is one of ill-will or greed and intensifies suffering in this world.The same analysis that applies to the physical act of wielding a knife applies to speech. If a man yells at someone, “Don’t move!” that’s his “bare behavior.” But his intention could be based on good-will (trying to stop the person from stepping in front of a moving car) or it could be based on ill-will (the words “don’t move” being spoken with a gun pressed against the other person’s back). The same analysis applies to thoughts. If you’re thinking about the homeless, that’s the bare content of your thoughts. But your intention behind that thought could be compassionate (hoping they find a place to stay warm in the winter) or it could be cruel (hoping they get frostbite in the cold).Planting behavioral seeds that form your character Karma is crucial to your development as a wise, caring, and loving human being because, if you act out of a non-harmful intention, you predispose yourself to act that way again. In other words, you plant a behavioral seed. You begin to form a habit. Conversely, if you act out of a harmful intention, you predispose yourself to act that way again, making it more likely that the next time your behavior will be harmful.Here’s what the Buddha said on this subject:Whatever a person frequently thinks and ponders upon, that becomes the inclination of his mind…If a person’s thinking is frequently imbued with ill-will… his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with ill-will… (MN19) The key word in that quotation is “inclination.” Each time your intention is one of ill-will, your inclination to respond with ill-will is strengthened. In other words, you’re more likely to act out of ill-will in the future. Conversely, each time your intention is to be kind, your inclination to respond with kindness is strengthened. You’re, in effect, learning how to be kind and so you’re more likely to be kind in the future. The same analysis applies to the other four intentions.And so, by responding with kindness, compassion, and generosity, you are turning yourself into a person who is kind, compassionate, and generous. You are forming your character. This, in turn, has a positive effect on the world around you. (And of course, the converse is true, should you respond to the world with ill-will, cruelty, and greed.)The key to learning to incline yourself toward non-harmful intentions is to reflect on whether your proposed speech or action will intensify suffering for yourself and others or will ease it. Practicing mindfulness helps because it makes you more aware of your reactive tendencies. Then, instead of acting impulsively out of habit, you’re better able to examine your intentions before you act.The implications of this can be life-changing. It means that you have the ability to change yourself no matter how ingrained your habits are. As the Buddha said, “Intending, one does karma…” Thus, with the intention not to harm, you “do” karma, meaning that the person you become is kind, compassionate, and generous.Practicing with karma To get a feel for how karma as intention is the key to forming your character, pick an upcoming occasion and resolve to think, speak, and act with the intention of alleviating suffering. It could be a big event or just someone coming over to visit. As the event approaches, think about the ways you could behave with kindness, compassion, and generosity. Being kind is no more than being open-hearted and friendly to others. Being compassionate means being alert to anyone who is suffering and reaching out to help that person. Being generous means being generous with your listening, with your time, and with your attention.After the occasion, reflect on how you did, not in order to grade yourself, but in order to learn. Resolve to repeat this practice in the future, recognizing that you’ll be planting behavioral seeds that will form your character.***Postscript: Returning to the first paragraph of this piece and the subject of why some people have health problems and other do not. I believe that I’m sick and in pain because I’m in a body and bodies are subject to illness and injury and aging. It happens to everyone at some point in life. This is the essence of the Buddha’s first noble truth. Toni Bernhard is the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers and How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow. Her newest book is called How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide. Before becoming ill, she was a law professor at the University of California—Davis. Her blog, “Turning Straw Into Gold” is hosted by Psychology Today online. Visit her website at

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