notes on karma

During last year’s season of Rains Retreat talks Phra Cittasamvaro Bhikku said the Buddha taught there are  four imponderables, four things just not worth thinking about as they are impossible to understand. One is the source of psychic powers, another is the mind of an Arahant, the third is the mind of a Buddha, and the final imponderable is karma. Trying to figure out how karma works will do little more than split your head into seven different pieces the Buddha said.

But I keep coming back to it this week. My post on moving the mala was prompted by reflections on karma, those “huge killer waves of our own making”, and Joseph’s post yesterday underlines again just how vital it is, if not to fully understand, then to at least have a basic grasp of how these energies work. Just as Phra Pandit suggested last year, we can get by with an outline of the principles of karma without delving into its more complex, imponderable, depths. And that basic outline is simply that everyone has karma and so we must be careful of what we do.

“That’s it”, he said. “Finished. Anything that comes next is, unlike most of the Buddha’s other teachings, going to be mainly speculation.” But it’s clear that our behavour, and the patterns we establish, can make all the difference between joining those figures in white at the bulgogi feast, or remembering one’s vows just in time. The clearest and most succinct formulation I ever heard of the workings of karma came from a Thai friend of mine when she said “Do good, get good. Do bad, get bad”.  Whichever way you look at it, our intentions and habits, orientation and practice, are what decide our fates.

Who can’t help but be reminded of Bodhidharma and Emperor Wu? “How much karmic merit have I earned by ordaining monks, building monasteries, having sutras copied, and commissioning Buddha images?” “None.” And then there’s the story of Nanta, the old lady who, despite her poverty, lit a lantern for the Buddha with such sincerity that not only did it burn late into the night, but she was also promised future Buddhahood from that single act of devout intention.

Littlebang: Notes on the Clockwork Universe

11 thoughts on “notes on karma”

  1. “Do good, get good. Do bad, get bad” – the thing is that it is not always obvious what is good and what is bad.
    When you ask “who am I?” (and practice) you would eventually know the mind of Buddha. When you have great devotion, “I” diminishes – that is the “trick”, so “death” of “I” is basically major activity of practice. Also karma get erased or diminishes at least when there is not much of “I”, but more of mind of the Buddha.
    As for me, I measure ‘success’ of practice, so to speak, by the ability to handle difficulties or sufferings in life, the ability to melt or diminish bad karma moments, otherwise all the talk in the world is a useless heap
    of…something…so it seems to me knowing the mind of Buddha, that is the deep mind within you is a necessity. But it is true it cannot be understood by thought, only by experiencing it, like the ocean cannot be explored by riding on the waves, but by diving deep.

  2. Thank you Sunim!

    For me, karma is very simple. It’s about purifying one’s mind as much as possible, moment to moment. Replacing unwholesome thoughts with wholesome ones. Practicing loving kindness towards others, including the ones I don’t like or who have harmed me. And also, towards myself. Self-forgiveness is such a gift. Having immense compassion for my very human, and fallible nature. Realizing, yes, I will mess up some times. Rather than beating myself up for it, I use those mistakes as teaching moments. And I apologize and make amends whenever necessary. I have plenty opportunity to practice this as a parent!

    May you be well, and at peace,


  3. Marcus,

    this ‘“Do good, get good. Do bad, get bad” – sentence doesn’t really work for me with the stories about Bodhidharma and Emperor Wu compared to Nanta. This emperor had done a lot of good things, too, hadn’t he?

    Maybe the point is more that good things should come from deeply inside, that good things want to be initiated from ‘being’ good rather than from ‘thinking about to be good’.
    what would you say?


    1. Hi Evelyn,
      I think the point is that the emperor had acted out of a desire to get something back for himself. So while he made some good “money” karma, there was no (true) merit and virtue in his actions, because those things come from selflessness (which is the same as non-duality.)

      1. – i see…

        at least what i meant goes into the same direction;)

        what i wanted to point out was that ‘Do good, get good’ obviously isn’t a that easy conclusion as it seems to be at first sight.

        Thank you, Chong Go!

      2. Thank you Chong Go Sunim,

        While I agree that a good act is a good act and will acrrue merit (‘money’ karma as you put it!), yes, it must be intention and orientation (linked to what you do with it) that decides in the end! Nanta’s latern (like the widow’s mite in the Gospels) may only be a small act – but it came from right intention and total selflessness.

        I stick with it… do good, get good! Do things thinking that it will glorify you and stack up your rewards, and you might be surprised at just how little you get back!

        Thanks Evelyn and Chong Go Sunim for the great discussion!

        Marcus _/\_

        (not a Sunim! LOL!)

  4. Another good posting and excellent discussion.

    I too feel that for the most part, “do good, get good” works. Our present mental and moral states are, for the most part, due to our own actions and tendencies.

    One “bad” thought leads to another… and another, until a “bad” action occurs on our part. The reverse is also true. “good” thoughts accumulate until they are borne out as good acts on our part.

    And for the most part, those good acts encourage good acts form those around us. They flourish and multiply.

    So until I can better understand karma, I too will continue to believe… do good, get good. :^)

    1. “One “bad” thought leads to another… and another, until a “bad” action occurs”

      Hi Doug, that’s exactly how Daehaeng Sunim describes it, I think she said “our mind becomes tilted towards those thoughts that often occur, until finally they become actions.”

      From somewhere the thought often arises, “Thoughts grow up to become actions.”

  5. {Hi Doug, that’s exactly how Daehaeng Sunim describes it, I think she said “our mind becomes tilted towards those thoughts that often occur, until finally they become actions.”}

    Hey! maybe I have a slightly better handle on karma than I thought. 🙂

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