Karma is a Sanskrit word that means “action” or “deed.” It is the universal law that governs the cause and effect of intentional deeds, and states that all intentional deeds produce results that eventually will be felt by the doer of the deed. Good deeds produce positive karmic effects and bad deeds produce negative karmic effects. Karma operates at many levels. Individuals have karma, communities have karma, countries have karma, and the earth as a whole has karma.

When we say that a person “has” karma, we mean that person’s present life is conditioned by his previous behavior. The same can be said of groups of people, countries, and the earth we inhabit.

The concept of karma is central to all schools of Buddhism and all interpretations of the Dharma. No one could possibly understand Buddhism without fully understanding the concept of karma. The Buddha divided karma into three types: karma generated by the body, karma generated by speech, and karma generated by the mind. All intentional acts of body, speech, and mind will inevitably produce karmic results. Even a Buddha cannot change the results of karma.

For most people, karma works through repetition. A certain intentional act produces a certain karmic result. Then this result is reacted to, and this reaction leads to another karmic result, and so on and so forth. Our lives are built upon our own reactions to conditions we have created ourselves. By reacting to our own karma over and over again, we mire ourselves in delusion. The Buddha said that the cycle of birth and death is a delusion that we cling to because we are not able to see beyond it. He said that we do not understand how to escape the cycle because we do not understand how it works. More than anything else, it is karma that keeps sentient beings trapped in the cycle of birth and death. However, if karma is truly understood, sentient beings can be liberated from this cycle.

For the purpose of this discussion, “negative karma” is generated from actions that harm sentient beings while “positive karma” is generated by actions which help them. Positive karma leads to rebirth as a human being or a heavenly being. On the other hand, negative karma is any action that harms and causes suffering to self or others. Very harmful acts produce negative karma that leads to rebirth in one of the three lower realms of existence (the realms of hell, hungry ghosts, and animals).

Karma is the force that causes us to be born even if we do not want to be born and causes us to die even if we do not want to die. However, it is important to understand that in the cycle of birth and death it is not “we” who are being born again and again, but rather it is our karma. Buddhist practice places great emphasis on doing good deeds because the good that we do today will form the foundation for future lives. The right way to understand karma is not to think about what we are going to “get out of” our actions, but rather to pay attention to what we doing right now, and what the effects of our actions will be.

The Different Kinds of Karma

Generally speaking, karma is divided into three basic kinds: the karma of body, speech, and mind. Whenever we form an intention, we have planted a mental karmic seed. As soon as we act on that intention, we have added more seeds to that first seed.

Positive Karma, Negative Karma, and Neutral Karma

Some acts produce positive karma, some produce negative karma, and some produce neutral karma. Positive karma is produced by acts that are intended to help other sentient beings. This includes protecting animals, giving to charity, speaking kind and encouraging words, and thinking compassionate thoughts. Negative karma is produced by acts that are intended to harm oneself or others. For example, killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, speaking harsh words, anger, greed, and wrong views all create negative karma. Unintentional acts produce neutral karma, which are actions that have no good or bad consequence. These actions also include involuntary behaviors like sleeping, walking, breathing, and eating.

Guiding Karma and Complete Karma

Guiding karma, also called “general karma,” are those karmic effects which guide the realm of existence a sentient being is reborn in: in the human realm, the animal realm, the hungry ghost realm, and so forth. Complete karma, also called “specific karma,” are those karmic effects which complete the other attributes of a being’s life, such as physical appearance, personality, health, lifespan, and external circumstances like which family and nation one will be born into.

Collective Karma and Individual Karma

Collective karma is a karmic effect that is shared by many different beings at once. For example, human beings are born on this earth because they have the same karmic causes, and therefore, share the same result. The nation and region in which we live is also part of our collective karma. If our region experiences a flood or an earthquake, it too is a karmic result we share with the people who live in our area.

The extent to which different collective karmic effects are shared among people varies. When an earthquake strikes an area, everyone in that area is affected in some way by the earthquake. This is collective karma that is shared by all. However, each individual in that area will be affected by the earthquake differently. Some may be injured, some will not. Some may lose their homes, while others experience no damage at all. This is the kind of collective karma that is not shared by all. The same distinction could be made for a car accident or any other event that affects more than one person. In the same car accident, one person may be killed whereas another walks away unharmed.

People also have individual karma that is different from person to person. Even if several people are involved in the same situation, they may have different reactions to it. For example, each member of a family has different individual karma, but when there is an event like a death in the family all members of the family will feel pain and grief. But when two strangers meet on the street, they are involved in the same situation, but their reaction to one another may be very different.

Definite Karma and Indefinite Karma

Definite karma is karma that will produce an effect at a determined time and place, and cannot be avoided by any means. Indefinite karma is karma that has an indefinite result. This is because the right conditions have not yet ripened, so the time, place, and means of the result have not been determined.

The Four Types of Karma

Another way to understand our actions is to divide them into four different types based on the karmic effects they produce: negative karma, positive karma, both negative and positive karma, and neither negative or positive karma. “Negative karma” are those actions which will only produce negative karmic effects, and “positive karma” are those actions which will only produce positive karmic effects. Those actions which are both negative and positive karma produce some negative karmic effects, and some positive karmic effects. Neither negative nor positive karma is also called “karma without outflows,” and is the karma of awakened beings who have severed all defilements and attained liberation. Since they have transcended the duality of good and bad, positive and negative, they no longer produce either positive karma or negative karma.

The Order in Which Karma Arrives

Karmic relationships are very complex and difficult to understand, and yet karmic effects arrive in a definite order. An understanding of this order is important to strengthen one’s faith in karma. Without understanding the order in which karmic effects arrive, it is too easy to see good people suffering hard deaths, bad people enjoying easy lives, and conclude that there is no justice in the world and no such thing as karma.

In terms of order, karmic effects arrive at three different times: causes in this life which manifest as effects in this life, causes in this life which manifest as effects in the next life, and causes in this life which manifest as effects in some future life beyond the next. These three levels can be compared to different kinds of plants: some seeds planted in the spring can be harvested in the fall, while others may take a whole year to bear fruit. Other trees may not bear fruit for several years.

Karmic effects arrive at different times for two main reasons. First, the karmic cause may generate an effect either slowly or quickly. This is similar to the plants that may be harvested in a single season or in a number of years as stated above. Another reason is that the necessary conditions may either be present or not present. For example, even if a seed is of the type that grows quickly, if it is not watered and kept in the dark it may not grow for many years.

That is why good people may still suffer: the negative karma from previous lifetimes has ripened in the present lifetime. Although they might have performed good deeds in this lifetime, the karmic causes of those good deeds are slow and the right conditions are not yet present, so the karmic effects will not appear until future lifetimes. By the same principle, people who do bad things may still lead comfortable lives. The seeds they are planting today will bring them misery in the future, but before that day comes, they are receiving the results of good deeds done in past lives.

There are two important points concerning the inner working of karma that are important to explain. First, karmic causes do not disappear, and second, negative karma and positive karma do not “cancel each other out.” The only way to avoid a negative effect is not to generate a negative cause. As long as we create a karmic cause it will reside in our consciousness until the right conditions are present and then manifest as an effect.

Also, while negative karma and positive karma do not cancel each other out, the more good deeds we perform our negative karma will manifest as less severe effects, and our positive karma will ripen more quickly. This is like adding fresh water to a glass of salt water: the salt has not been removed, but the taste is much less salty.

There are three factors which contribute to which realm we will be reborn in when our lives come to an end: the weightiness of our positive and negative karma, our habitual tendencies, and our final recollection. At the end of our life, counting all of the positive and negative karma we have accumulated, either our positive karma or negative karma will weigh more heavily on our future rebirth, depending on the frequency and severity of our good and bad deeds. Likewise, our habitual tendencies, our patterns of behavior that we generate in life, contribute to our future rebirth. Lastly, our final recollection, the thoughts we generate in our final moments of life, contribute to our future rebirth. Consider going for a walk around the neighborhood: you may not have any particular goal, but when you arrive at an intersection you must still choose whether to go north, south, east, or west. Suppose you then have a thought that you have a friend who lives on the west side, so you choose to go west. Just as a single thought affects our choice of direction, our thoughts before death, whether wholesome or unwholesome, have a profound effect on our future rebirth.

Principles of Karma

The Buddha said that all phenomena are impermanent. If all things are changing moment by moment, and if nothing is eternal, why does karma continue from life to life? In the Buddhist sutras, karma is commonly compared to seeds. A seed may be stored for many years, but as soon as it meets the right conditions, it will begin to sprout, then grow, bloom, and bear fruit. Over time, its flowers will produce more seeds. And these seeds, after meeting with the right conditions, will grow again. Karma works in the same way, for all of our intentional acts produce “seeds” that are stored in our consciousness. When the conditions are right, those karmic causes will manifest as effects.

Karma is also our persistent traits or attributes from one life to the next. Our karma is like the fragrance that persists in the bottle even after the perfume has been used up. The habitual tendencies and karma of one life will persist into the next life in a similar way. Once a karmic cause has been “planted,” it cannot be destroyed. The effect that will manifest is a direct reflection of the karmic cause, and the person who created the karmic cause must alone bear the effect of its fruition.

All sentient beings are trapped in the ocean of birth and death due to their karma. Karma is like the string that holds prayer beads together. The string connects all the beads; likewise, karma connects our lives from the past to the present and into the future, continuously causing us to be reborn in the six realms of existence. Therefore, our physical bodies are born and die, but life does not end. When we break a teacup, the pieces of the cup cannot be put back together. However, the contents inside the cup do not diminish even when they flow onto the table and then to the ground. Karma is like the tea that does not disappear; rather, it continues to exist in another incarnation. In this cycle, each person must bear his or her own positive and negative karma. Gods and spirits are not here to either reward or punish us.

Since karma is created by each person and not controlled by the gods, everyone is equal under the law of karma. In fact, karma should bring us hope. Doing good deeds is like depositing money in the bank. If we do not keep on saving, there will come a day when our money is all used up. Therefore, we need to continue to generate positive karma by performing good deeds. Conversely, if we commit many bad deeds, it is like being heavily in debt. But, if we change our ways and start performing good deeds, one day we will be able to pay back what we owe.

Karma lets us understand why all sentient beings are reborn into the cycle of birth and death, and how they are related to each other. Knowing this can give rise to great compassion. By having great compassion and living in accord with karma not only can we be happy in this life, but be reborn into a higher realm in the next life.