Karma is one of those words used so often in its most basic and popularly understood sense, that we often don’t think to consider it’s deeper applications or, perhaps, even its potential manifestations. The popular understanding of Karma, of course, is something along the lines of whether you do good or ill, it will come back to you. In the West Karma is generally referenced within the context of this present life while in some schools of both Buddhist and Hindu thought, where the transmigration of souls is an accepted doctrine, Karma spans many thousands of incarnations.
It is important for me to say that I am a student of Buddhism and Hinduism and not a scholar in this regard. What I write here represents my current understanding and I fully recognize there may be factual or other errors in my writing due to my unfamiliarity with the wealth of literature available on Eastern thought. Having said that, I have done my best to represent a view on Karma faithful to both the secondary and primary sources with which I am familiar.
My personal interests are in Buddhism. But of course, to understand some central Buddhist doctrines one must become familiar with the essential aspects of Hindu thought; in particular, Vedanta. Buddhism is represented by an incredibly diverse set of ideas, schools, doctrines, and practices heavily influenced by regional cultures and Eastern religions present during Buddhism’s long expansion across Asia. While there is broad agreement on the doctrines of The Four Noble Truths, The Noble Eightfold Path, and related ideas, there exists between Buddhist schools significant disagreement on nearly everything else, including Karma. Buddhism has no central authority. Each school has its own recognized canon. However, there are certain sutras which are almost universally recognized. These are found in what is known as the Pali Canon; the earliest sutras as written in Pali (sutta).
I have found the Pali Canon Sutras present a view of Karma (or as it would be written in Pali, kamma) more expansive and perhaps, less mystical than is popularly understood. Similarly, my study of Zen Buddhism and its almost non-existent canon presents Karma in a relatively broad sense. My understanding of Karma is based, primarily, on these sources.
Karma is consequence. Every action, good, evil, or morally neutral has consequences and impacts, perhaps even in imperceptible ways, everything and everyone around us. Karma, then, is not a “magical” concept wherein our deeds reflect back on us in the form of good or bad fortune. Rather, Karma is the recognition of the interconnectedness of all events and intentions. No event occurs in a vacuum. It is the consequence or result of something that came before. The simple act of turning on the light switch is the result of karmic motion or direction: Edison lived in a prosperous and burgeoning century providing the conditions wherein he could invent a viable light bulb which helped promote the rapid spread of infrastructure etc. Every event since the Big Bang has been the consequence of that which came before. Karma both recognizes and describes this connectedness. As a result it is important for us to develop both mindfulness and wisdom such that we are aware of our place within the Karmic milieu.
I think an incredible example of this view of Karma can be seen in a BBC documentary about adults, born in Germany as part of the plan to develop a so-called master race, and their struggle to come to terms with their origins as the children of SS officers, and women escaping the social shame of unmarried pregnancy or those chosen or encouraged specifically for the purpose of producing offspring:
In particular, the story of Guntram Weber is at once heartbreaking, inspiring, and instructive. Weber was the son of an SS officer responsible for carrying out several murders and atrocities in Poland and he, Weber, carried a significant emotional a psychological burden due to the barbarous and heinous acts of a father he never knew. And indeed, Weber only became aware of his true father’s SS identity much later in life.
Weber travels to Poland to learn more about his father’s crimes. And also to personally visit the daughter of one of his father’s victims: 91 yr. old Jadwiga Polakoski. Weber meets Polakoski at her apartment and, after ensuring she can understand him, apologizes for the actions of his father. Holding his hand, Polakoski responds with a simple “thank you.”
Weber and Polakoski spend time together and Polakoski describes her experience of watching her father being taken by the SS. She speaks of the courage shown by her father as he was led towards what he must have known to be certain death.
At one point Polakoski takes Weber to the shallow mass grave where she, in a horrific and terrible moment, came upon the remains of her murdered father. Polakoski pulls no punches. She is blunt, direct, and honest. She does not shy away from the fact that the consequences of her father’s murder caused her immense pain and longing sadness. This pain and sadness persisted throughout Polakoski’s life. Yet, Polakoski is strong. It is clear that she accepted what happened in her life and despite her pain, she decided to carry on with courage.
Weber was deeply affected by Polakoski’s words. They hurt him. Weber wanted to know the truth and Polakoski was willing to tell him, as straightforward matters of fact, what had occurred. But Polakoski does something else; something remarkable. She, in a beautiful act of compassion, comforts Weber, the son of her father’s killer. She holds his hand. She tells him that what happened was not his fault. Weber, of course, understands this intellectually. But his pain is real and the personal impact of his father’s barbarity is undeniable. Out of this personal pain — both Polakoski’s and Weber’s — emerges an incredible and unexpected relationship defined by forgiveness, kindness and tenderness.
I believe the interaction between Polakoski and Weber is instructive in several ways.
First, we can see how the actions of both Weber’s and Polakoski’s fathers had a direct and lasting impact on their children’s lives. The actions of Weber’s father caused pain and sadness while the courage of Polakoski’s father inspired strength and fortitude.
Second, Polakoski’s choice to carry on without the burden of cancerous and all-consuming hatred and anger demonstrates that even when presented with the most heinous, unjust, and tragic of circumstances, we can find a measure of peace. And, as Polakoski so compassionately showed, it is possible for victims of injustice to extend and promote peace. By so doing, putting an end to the potential cycle of anger and revenge which could consume, define, and overwhelm many generations to come.
Third, the story of Polakoski and Weber reminds us of how our choices and actions will, absolutely and unequivocally, impact the lives of not only our descendants, but also the descendants of our friends, neighbors, and even those whom we may never meet. As such, it is important to remain mindful of the influence of our present actions will impact the future.
Regardless of what we choose to call it or how we may describe it, the presence of a causal relationship between events past, present, and future is undeniable. In my view, this, at least in part, is Karma. Clearly or present actions have immediate and recognizable consequences in the short-term. But our present actions and intentions — be they good or ill — will also resonate long into the future.