What Is Karma?

There’s a Buddhist saying that goes: “All the seeds of all the flowers of tomorrow are in the seeds of today.” I love this saying. It’s the fundamental message of karma. No single flower or seed is independent in and of itself… It carries within it the past and the future… All the flowers of yesterday and all the flowers of tomorrow.

Ven. Thubten Chodron wrote, “Karma means action, and refers to intentional physical, verbal, or mental actions. These actions leave imprints or seeds upon our mindstreams, and the imprints ripen into our experiences when the appropriate conditions come together. For example, with a kind heart we help someone. This action leaves an imprint on our mindstream, and when conditions are suitable, this imprint will ripen into our receiving help when we need it. The seeds of our actions continue with us from one lifetime to the next and do not get lost. However, if we don’t create the cause or karma for something, then we won’t experience that result: if a farmer doesn’t plant seeds, nothing will grow. If an action brings about pain and misery in the long term, it is called negative, destructive, or nonvirtuous. If it brings about happiness, it is called positive, constructive, or virtuous. Actions aren’t inherently good or bad, but are only designated so according to the results they bring.”

This is how I think of karma itself… the fertile ground where the seeds of our thoughts, words and actions are planted, grow and finally bloom.   I think of my life as a field–a karma field–and in that field are all the seeds I’ve planted. There are roses and poppies and watermelon and strawberries and apple trees and mixed in are the most noxious weeds and brambles and thorns. Vines that grow and choke the good crops. Each of these is something that I planted with my intention or volition… But since karma is not predetermination, the trajectory of my life is not set completely by my past actions. So, if I’m unhappy in my life, I need to look at what I’m doing now – what seeds I’m planting now – and do something different… concentrate on the present. Andrew Palmer (a really great local Zen teacher) said, everything that I’ve done in the past is done. Everything I do from here on, is a matter of choice. And I can deliberately, intentionally do things that will lessen the consequences of my past actions. 

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