Kamma / Karma
Lately in our family group we’ve been going through the list of the ten parami’s. These qualities are considered perfections of character and heart that are the attributes of a fully awakened Buddha (samma-sambuddha). Such a being is capable of not only attaining enlightenment without the aid of an existing teacher, but they have the wisdom and compassion to teach others in how to attain that same enlightenment. Such a being as a Buddha is not a pre-existing condition or miracle. The qualities known as the parami’s must be cultivated and developed over time until they are perfect. Thus the being known as the bodhisatta is one who has set out on such a quest to perfect themselves before attaining enlightenment so it can be of the highest possible benefit. It’s a quest that lasts a very, very, very long time, and spans innumerable births.
Many of the best stories for showing the exercise and mastery of the parami’s come from the jataka tales, a collection of stories that reportedly portray some of the Buddha’s past lives during his quest. Traditionally there are a lot of ideas that are so interwoven in the narrative they aren’t even explained – ideas of karma as cause and effect, ideas of rebirth and of other realms. Sometimes the main characters are powerful angelic beings; other times they are squabbling and petty talking animals. Most cultures were already warmed up to these ideas when they told these stories to their children.
This week our family group decided to take a little break from studying the ten parami’s in order to cover an important topic: kamma. This topic is so essential to Buddhist thought that it has to be covered at some point, and yet it is so essential it’s hard to know where to start. Luckily, upon consideration during the week before the group, it started to become clear that we weren’t addressing a topic that would be new to anyone. We were just applying a new word to a force that everyone kinda already suspects exists.
We started with a question: “Do you know what the word karma means?” It’s important to ask first, because you never know! As it turned out, neither of the children had much of an idea of karma, though they did know the song ‘Karma Chameleon’ from Culture Club!! You never know with modern culture! The lyrics are a little vague, but the music video shows a thief pickpocketing and eventually getting caught, and comically being made to ‘walk the plank’. That works!
We started our meeting with a meditation, and cultivated the quality of quiet observation. During our group we focused on good and bad kamma, but there is also the third kind: non-resultant kamma. It provides benefit and insight but doesn’t produce a consequence that will have to be experienced later. Meditation is often this third kind of kamma and helps us find freedom. Any action involving observation, empathy, consideration, reflection, understanding … all fall in this third category. We’ll definitely talk more about this in the future.
This was our very organic family group meeting:
Start with a question: “Do you know what the word karma means?” It’s very important to check, and everybody deserves a chance to give their perspective! It should become clear pretty quick that everybody has some idea of the concept, but there might still not be much agreement. It’s okay if the ideas differ. We’re here to cover the idea in Buddhism.
We can explain that in every culture there is some idea of cause and effect. If we do something, we will get a consequence or result. It can be useful to check if everyone knows what consequence means. In some cultures and religions it is believed that a god or angels are watching over us, and if we do good things the god rewards us and if we do bad things the god punishes us.
In Hinduism there is an idea of karma like a bank account. When we do good actions we get good karma, like points, and when we do bad actions we get bad karma points. If we have too much on one side or the other we’re going to start to get good or bad results respectively. Part of this belief is that experiencing a good or bad result helps balance the karma.
In Buddhism karma comes from the word kamma, which means action. The Buddha taught that kamma is not a bank account and nobody does it to us. Kamma is a law of nature like gravity. It works no matter what. When we do an action there will be a result. If it’s a good action, there will be a good result. If it’s a bad action there will be a bad result. Sometimes the result comes immediately, but it can also happen long after. So we are always receiving the results of things we did in the past, and how we are in the present will change what we experience in the future. We don’t get to choose when it happens though! So good things might happen to bad people and bad things to good people, but the more good we do, the more likely good results will come, and the same with bad. Our choices matter!
We can demonstrate how common this idea is. Have you ever heard a story or seen a movie about superheroes? Who usually wins in the end? The hero right? Why? Who usually loses in the end? The villain, right? Why? Isn’t it true that because the hero does good we expect things to work out for them, and because the villain does bad we expect them to fail? Sometimes it takes the whole story to find out, but it almost always ends that way.
It’s the same in life! Sometimes it might seem like people get what they want by doing bad things, but if you watch them long enough you see they create a lot of misery for themselves and others by their actions! Likewise everyone tends to cheer for the hero. Even if they have difficulty, we want them to win because they are doing good things.
ACTIVITY: We can actually use superheroes to show a lot about kamma! Let’s invent a superhero and name them. Now let’s invent a villain and name them. What is our hero like? What sorts of things do they do? We write them on a board and draw them. Now, what sorts of things does the villain do?
Now let’s consider what happens because of the actions they take. Our hero was often compassionate and saving people. So people trusted them, and built a statue of them, and gave them money. The villain liked to smash buildings and steal cookies. So people were afraid of them and the police were always trying to punish them.
To help understand Kamma and its effects, the Buddha divided it three ways. What three? Thought, Speech, and Bodily Action. What kind of thoughts does each character have? How do they talk? What things do they do? Now, let’s consider what other people think about them. What do they say about these characters?
One of the widest categories is thinking about the way our physical situation reflects our karma. This is a big part of buddhist culture and the stories in buddhism. Our intention and our mind state actually changes our whole world!
What does the hero look like? How do they live? How much free choice do they have? And now the villain – how do they look, live, and do they have as much freedom? We might see that our hero is strong, popular, and glows, while our villain is dark, bent, and brooding and hides in the dark places. They never have any peace. We already know that the quality of our thoughts and actions affects our whole life if we think about it.
Most stories are about karma really. We were lucky enough to have:
STORY: What Should Danny Do? By Ganit and Adir Levy
In the story, Danny goes through his day making choices, which affect how the story plays out. We went through it once keeping track of the outcome, then asked which choice we might have wanted to change the most. We went back and made a different choice there, and the whole story was different! Our choices really do matter.
In the end, we talk about Kamma to prepare the way for a lot of discussions to follow. The idea of cause and effect is so important! It’s good to be sure that if anyone has any questions they get to ask them. That way we can all move to understanding together!