Sherab Namgyal / October 11, 2012

Karma Part 1: What it is not – getting rid of common misconceptions


Karma has become a common term in the 21st century but is surrounded by many myths and is generally misunderstood. This article gives you the fundamentals of Karma and how it works. Also read Karma Part 2: Mind, Samsara and the Emptiness of Karma.

What Karma is not

There are numerous misconceptions when it comes to Karma and the most common ones are that Karma is retribution or fate. To believe so is a misunderstanding or lack of knowledge of the teachings and so Karma is not punishment or retribution as that would imply a punisher and that some actions in themselves are sinful and deserve retribution. This is however a faulty reasoning and is often based on a Christian mindset. Karma is more like gravity: What goes up must come down, meaning that certain actions lead to certain and predictable results.

Another common mistake is to think that Karma is destiny which indicates that there is no free will. However it is our choice at any time to change our Karma and so our actions are the cause of Karma. Fortunately Karma does not ripe instantly and so it can occasionally be hard to correlate Karma to a specific action and individuals might believe they did not create the actions for specific results and are therefore confused about the way Karma works.

Karma means action

Cosmos is a causal system meaning it’s created by causes that lead to certain effects. Karma simply means action which signifies that Karma is the result of prior causes and so the White Lotus of Great Compassion sutra states:

“This world is produced by Karma; this world manifests by means of Karma. All sentient beings are produced by Karma; they appear through the cause, Karma; they are fully classified by Karma.”

Karma can have three types of effects: Undesirable effects (“bad” Karma), desirable effects (“good” Karma) and neutral effects.  It is the motivation can determines whether the Karma will have (un-)desirable or neutral effects and so the intention of helping others will lead to “good” Karma while the intention to harm others will lead to “bad” Karma. Any type of Karma is definitive, meaning that virtuous actions can never lead to undesirable Karma and vice versa. Karma however can be weak or strong and this is determined by four factors:

  1. Not knowing the circumstances and the facts of the situation – To illustrate: If an individual who has never heard about or seen a gun shooting and unwillingly, kills another individual the Karma will be weak.
  2. Plans the action – Planning a deed and thereby contemplating about it for some time gives a stronger karmic imprint.
  3. To do the deed or have it done – Whether the action is done by oneself or by an agent this still qualifies as strong Karma. It then also follows that if one only goes through step 1 and 2 the Karma is less strong.
  4. Rejoicing over the deed – If one is content and rejoices over the action, it is strong Karma as one is more likely to repeat it in the future.

“What is karma? It is the karma of mind and karma of thought” – Collection of Abhidharma

Actions of body, speech and mind all result in Karma, although with different effects and furthermore Karma is dynamic. Like a pot that is filled only one drop at the time will become full eventually.

Mind is the karma of consciousness. By its force the karma of body and speech manifest – The Treasury of Abhidharma

One of the examples of this, when it comes to collective Karma, is the environment. Damaging the environment only one day by only one person is not a big deal but over a long time it can accumulate to an extensive disaster. The next article on Karma will go into more details on Karma specifics.

This concludes “Karma 101 – What it is and what it is not”. If you would like to read more Pure Teachings by Shiva Bear follow this link: or for Dream Yoga

Also read Karma Part 2: Mind, Samsara and the Emptiness of Karma

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