Karma is not a system of reward and tribulation, nor a code of value judgement. In simple terms, it means the operation of cause and effect.

3.40 The Operation of Karma

Original Text in Chinese


Literal Translation

    The karma of life and death of sentient being is due to their heart, will and knowledge.


The karma generating the cycle of life and death of sentient beings is a function of their mind, intellect consciousness and alaya consciousness.


Karma is the law of cause and effect. Whatever a person has thought and done in the past, accumulates to shape his present. All the good and bad effects of his present thoughts and deeds, operate to form his future. A person's fate, therefore, is his own thinking and doing. If he thinks good thoughts and leads a good life, he shall have a good future, not because some divine or outside power rewards him, but because he earns it through his own effort. On the other hand, if he has been evil, his future shall be bad, again not because of divine or outside punishment, but because of his own making. The doctrine of karma is not something thought out by some moralizing teachers to scare would-be wrong doers; it is a timeless universal truth.

Why, then, there are cases of evil-doers who enjoy good lives, while good people suffer? This is because the present evil-doers have accumulated merits in their previous lives, and are now enjoying their own rewards; but if they are foolish enough to continue with their present wickedness, they are creating harmful karmic effect for themselves. The good people suffer because they are bearing the fruit of their wrong-doings done in their previous lives. Their present goodness, however, can compensate for their previous evil, and the surplus if any shall be added to their future credit.

When a person dies, unless he has attained nirvana, his karmic force will be transferred to his next life, thus generating the endless cycle of birth and death. This endless cycle, known as samsara, whereby a being becomes a slave to his karma, is the principal cause of his suffering. The chief aim of Buddhism is to break this cycle, so that he attains nirvana or Buddhahood, which can, and should, be attained while he is still living his physical life. This book will show some practical ways to do so.

But what starts karma in the first place? Asvaghosha explains that it is caused by mind, intellectual consciousness and alaya consciousness, and will be explained subsequently.

The doctrine of karma entails the belief in reincarnation. Modern Westerners are probably the only people in the history of mankind who doubt that people reincarnate. All known great peoples, including the ancient and medieval Westerners, have recorded in their religious and other great books their undeniable belief that people are born again and again. Nevertheless, the number of modern Westerners being converted to the belief in reincarnation has been growing. In a 1979 Sunday Telegraph poll, it was found that 28 percent of all British adults believed in reincarnation. In 1980, the conservative London Times reported that 29 percent of the 1,314 people responding to a questionnaire had the same belief. The famous Gallup poll in America disclosed in 1982 that very nearly every one American in four were reincarnationist.

The belief of the Chinese, Indians, Egyptians, Tibetans, and other Eastern peoples on reincarnation is well known; because of space constraint only examples from Christians, Muslims and Western peoples are given below.

Numerous places in the Bible clearly indicate that Jesus is the reincarnation of Elijah. It is significant that the Old Testament concludes with the following words:

    But before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes, I will send you the prophet Elijah. He will bring fathers and children together again; otherwise I would have to come and destroy your country.
    -- Malachi 4:5.
And when Jesus went to Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples:
    Whom do men say that I, the Son of man, am? And they said. Some say that thou art John the Baptist; some, Elijah; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets.
    -- Matthew 16:13:4.
St Gregory (257-332) said, "It is absolutely necessary that the soul should be healed and purified, and if this does not take place during its life on earth, it must be accomplished in future lives."

The Koran mentions that "God generates beings, and sends them back over and over again, till they return to Him."

Sharf Uddin Manari, a Sufi teacher, said, "O Brother, know for certain that this work has been before thee and me in bygone ages, and that each man has already reached a certain stage. No one has begun this work for the first time."

Plato said, "Know that if you become worse you will go to the worse souls, or if better to the better, and in every succession of life and death, you will do and suffer what like may fitly suffer at the hands of like".

Virgil said, "All these souls, after they have passed away a thousand years, are summoned by the divine ones in great array, to the Lethean river ... In this way they become forgetful of the former earthlife, and re-visit the vaulted realms of the world, willing to return again into living bodies."

Great scientists too, ancient as well as modern, believe in reincarnation. Paracelsus said, "Some children are born from heaven, and others are born from hell, because each human being has his inherent tendencies, and these tendencies belong to his spirit, and indicate the state in which he existed before he was born."

Thomas Edison said, "The unit of life is composed of swarms of billions of highly charged entities which live in the cells. I believe that when a man dies, this swarm deserts the body and goes out into space, but keeps on and enters another cycle of life and is immortal."

Hence, not only humans but virtually all forms of life from the tiniest cells to the gigantic stars participate in reincarnation.

Joe Fisher says, "As the catalyst of transformation on which the evolution of all matter and spirit depends, reincarnation is ceaselessly within us and around us. From the tiniest micro to the macro most huge, cycles that hinge on rebirth and regeneration are proceeding at every conceivable level of life."

3.41 Karma as Function of Mind

Original Text in Chinese


Literal Translation

    What is the meaning? Because of alaya consciousness there is ignorance.


What is the meaning of saying that karma is a function of mind, intellectual consciousness and alaya consciousness? Because of alaya consciousness (often translated as "storehouse consciousness"), there is ignorance, which in turn operates intellect consciousness and awareness (or mind), thus generating karma.


Alaya consciousness (alaya vijnana) is the universal mental storehouse where the seeds for all manifestations are found. It is the universal mind. Jung's concept of universal consciousness is similar, except the Buddhist concept is grander and wider for it encompasses not only the minds of all humans and creatures on earth, but also the minds of all sentient beings of all spheres, including numerous astral planes. Each individual, however, has his own alaya consciousness, which is an expression of the universal alaya consciousness.

Intellect consciousness (mano vijnana) refers to the sense centre where impressions from the outer world received through the various sense organs are interpreted. It is the conscious mind.

In earlier passages, it was mentioned that ignorance is originally found in the Supreme Reality, and here it is mentioned that ignorance is due to alaya consciousness. Does ignorance come before or after alaya consciousness? Throughout the ages, Buddhist masters have debated over this question.

A popular view is that the Supreme Reality being timeless and spaceless is impartial and neutral; it can be Enlightenment or ignorance, or more appropriately, neither Enlightenment nor ignorance. But it holds the seed of ignorance -- just as it holds the seed of Enlightenment. Alaya consciousness is another name for the Supreme Reality with the seed of ignorance. Because of this alaya consciousness, ignorance (not just its seed) occurs, generating various transformations into the phenomenal world.

Another view, however, contends that original ignorance was already present. If there were no ignorance, the concept (and reality) of Enlightenment would be irrelevant. Therefore, because of ignorance, alaya consciousness arises. Alaya consciousness acts like a mirror, reflecting and manifesting ignorance, which in turn generates transformation into the phenomenal world. Because of the phenomenal world, karma operates.

Because of inadequate understanding, it is easy to misunderstand or misinterpret the meaning and significance of karma. For example, Paul Edwards in his article "Karma Tribulations" raises the following arguments against karma:

  1. "The Law of Karma has no predictive value whatsoever". For example, when a plane with a thoroughly decent crew and passengers takes off, a believer of karma cannot predict confidently whether the plane will crash.
  2. The Law of Karma "is compatible with anything and hence totally empty", because it is "post hoc". For example, "if a kind and decent person comes to a good end, this can readily be explained as the result of his good karma. But if he comes to a bad end, would this disconfirm the karmic principle? Not at all, because it can be argued that he committed evil deeds in his previous life. In other words, no matter what the result is, one can contrive to apply the karmic principle because its explanation is after (not before) the event."
  3. The "administration" of karmic ordinances poses an "utterly devastating question". For example, how are good and bad deeds registered? How and where is it decided what will happen to a person in his next incarnation? How are such decisions translated into reality?
  4. "Karma is completely vacuous as a principle of moral guidance." For example, if we meet a child in trouble, whether we help him or not, "we will be doing the right thing." If we help him, "this means that his earlier deed did not require more sever punishment"; if we do not help him, "this shows that his sin was so great as to deserve the total amount of his suffering".
Before examining the answers to all the arguments, it is helpful to be aware of the following two points:

Karma is not a system of reward and tribulation, nor a code of value judgement. In simple terms, it means the operation of cause and effect. For example, if a plane crashes and decent passengers are in it, the meaning of karma in this case is not whether decent passengers should be involved, but that the passengers have boarded that plane.

The significance of karma, like other Mahayana concepts, will be better appreciated if we are aware of two levels of knowledge. At an ordinary level, a plane crash is certainly morbid, but at a higher level, though it may appear ridiculous to non-believers, the plane crash can be a blessing to the decent passengers, such as instantly transporting them to another happier realm of existence!

It should be remembered that karma is not meant by its advocates as a predictive model. It is not the fashion of Buddhists, for example, to say that if decent people board a plane, according to the law of karma the plane is not likely to crash. Neither is it a fashion to insist that if it ever crashes, the decent people in it must have had sinful lives in the past. There could be other causes, such as engine failure or pilot's error, besides some madmen planting a time-bomb on it. For a true Buddhist who believes in karma and reincarnation, he has no fear of being killed in a plane crash, though he would probably not want to experience it.

The law of karma is post hoc only if we choose to view it after the event. If we view it before the event, the karmic principle is often predictive, though that is not what karma is normally used for. For example, if a fine human being has the habit of dashing across busy streets carelessly, he has a good chance of being run over by a driver, drunken or otherwise. If it happens, probably irrespective of whether he sinned in his previous life, the cause is carelessness. If you know that your friend is cheerful, exercises regularly, sleeps and eats well, you can reasonably predict that according to the law of karma, he is not likely to land in a hospital. But if you also know that he had a heart attack the previous month, then, also according to the law of karma, you can expect it when he is hospitalized. In the same way, if you know he had been sinful in his previous lives, you would not be surprised that he comes to a bad end even if his present life is decent.

When we have a deeper understanding of how karma works, we will realize that "administration" of karma is never an "utterly devastating question". As explained by Asvaghosha in the above passage, karma is a function of the alaya consciousness and the intellect consciousness. Its operation does not need the service of special agents to decide what will happen to a person in his next incarnation, nor an office to register good and bad deeds. There are no such decisions as those made by any central karmic authority; but each person makes his own decisions which are translated into "reality" as thoughts, words and deeds, which then become causes and effects in the autonomous karmic operation.

Because of the alaya consciousness, cosmic reality which is actually undifferentiated, is perceived by ordinary people as the differentiated phenomenal world. This results in attachment to self and to phenomena, leading to the arising of discriminating thoughts and desires. For example, the collection of dharmas (sub-atomic particles and forces) that may be invisible to other sentient beings with their different set of alaya consciousness, appears to humans as earthquakes. (Please see elsewhere in this book for an explanation of how this happens.) Because of a complex matrix of karmic causes and effects, thousands of people have moved here and are killed, but some others may even benefit from this disaster. According to Buddhist philosophy, the earthquake is not "a special intervention on the part of the Deity", nor is it true that "the believer in Karma, by contrast, must be prepared to claim that the earthquake was brought about in order to punish or reward the various people who suffered or benefited from the earthquake."

Similarly, a complex matrix of karmic causes and effects brings about a terrorist burning of a town, including mistakenly burning some houses of their supporters. It should be noted that karma is concerned with cause and effect, and not with punishment and reward. Moreover, value judgement, which is usually subjective, operates only at the ordinary level; at the higher level, there is no such concepts as right and wrong!

Burning someone's house is "right" to the terrorists, "wrong" to the house owner, and neutral to some beings operating at a different cosmic dimension. If a person's house is burnt, it is not because the Deity punishes him, but because of the karmic effect of his thoughts, words and deeds, such as a distant thought in the past that he would own a house, his outspoken speech which might have attracted the attention of the arsonists, and his building a house in that town.

Hence, passing a value judgement subjectively as whether karma is vacuous as a principle of moral guidance, can be interpreted at different levels. At a superficial level where we lack in-depth understanding, the judgement may seem valid. At an intermediate level where we understand karma better, unless we have a perverse set of moral values, there is no question of whether helping or not helping a suffering child is the right thing to do. The onus of the karmic principle is on us, not on the child: it is not a question of whether the child sinned much or little in his past life, but whether we would like to have good or bad effect of helping or not helping the child.

Even if a horrendous sinner in his present life is in trouble, we have no justification for not helping him. Hence, statements like "It follows from their (karma believers') principle that Abraham Lincoln, Jean Jaures, the two Kennedy brothers, and Martin Luthur King got no more than they deserved when they were assassinated" and "the seven astronauts who perished in the Challenger space shuttle in 1986 were entirely responsible for their deaths, and the grief felt by millions of people all over the world was quite out of place" are unsound. While supporters of these great men and of the space programmes would think their death unfair, and their opponents think it warranted, it is safe to say that most people, irrespective of whether they believe or not believe in karma, provided they are still capable of expressing their emotion, would be sad at the tragedies. The significance of the karmic principle here is not whether they deserve or not deserve their tragic deaths, but that there are inevitable causes of and effects from these events.

Yet, according to Buddhist philosophy at the highest level, it is not important whether the karmic effect is right or wrong, deserving or unwarranted. This is because karma, like the phenomenal world itself from which it derives its origin and operation, is an illusion. Understandably, to those who may not appreciate the higher wisdom of Buddhism, this concept may not make any sense. Moreover some of its implications may appear outlandish. For example, it may imply that Abraham Lincoln's assassination was not only an inevitable effect of all the causes he had generated in his noble effort to abolish slavery, it also actualized the sublimation of his life's mission, bringing inspiration as well as actual benefits to posterity -- an event that Lincoln himself, in retrospective, would like to happen!

The concept of karma is often and rewardingly used by people of different religious and cultural backgrounds to provide moral guidance. Nevertheless in Buddhism, it is stressed that whatever reward or punishment that may result from the operation of karma is the recipient's own doing, and definitely not an act of intervention from any divine sources.

Let us suppose that a person has cultivated merits all his lives, and has never done an evil deed. Can we predict that he will have a good life? Certainly. Will any evil happen to him? Never. Can he be hit by a stray bullet, or run over by a car accidentally? Accidents do not happen; there is a cause and an effect for everything Why are we so sure? Because the law of karma is inexorable.

As it is impracticable to demonstrate how a complex matrix of myriad causes produce the inevitable effects, let us simplify the explanation to the following examples. If you plant mangoes, you will inexorably get mangoes; if apples come out from your mango trees instead, there must be other causes. If a quantum physicist sets up his apparatus to measure the wave properties of an electron, the electron will always manifest as a wave; if it manifests as a particle, there must be other causes. If you sow good karmic causes, you will inexorably harvest good karmic effects; if bad effects occur, there must be other causes.

Interestingly, Paul Edwards concludes his article with an illuminating statement: "Calling natural regularities instances of Karma is about as enlightening as describing them as manifestations of the Absolute Mind or as instances of the dialectical interplay of Being and Non-Being." Probably he means that describing karma as "lawfulness" or "regularities" is "saying nothing at all", suggesting that terms like Absolute Mind, Being and Non-Being are hollow without meaning. But if we understand the meaning of these terms, then his statement illustrates a profound cosmic truth.

In Buddhist philosophy, the Absolute Mind is the ultimate truth or the Supreme Reality, which is impartial and undifferentiated. Suppose you look at the universe through an extremely powerful electronic microscope. You will not see the usual objects like houses, trees and people; but you will see their elementary particles dissolving into energy fields, and if you have intuitive wisdom, you can sense this cosmic void teeming with consciousness. This will give you a useful, though imperfect, idea of the Absolute Mind.

Because of ignorance, ordinary people perceive the Absolute Mind as differentiated into the phenomenal world, with the result that karma arises. When a being is Enlightened and experiences Cosmic Reality intrinsically as undifferentiated, karma ceases. But for ordinary people who experience reality as the illusory phenomenal world, karma describes the lawfulness and regularities of the manifestations of the Absolute Mind.

The terms "Being" and "Non-Being" are not commonly used in Buddhism, but they approximate to the Buddhist concepts of "Buddha" and "Tathagata". To most Western readers, the term Buddha usually refers to Siddhartha Guatama Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha, who is regarded in all schools of Buddhism as the physical body of the Buddha. The Buddha, especially in Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, can also appear in his cosmic form, in his transformational or reward body. At the cosmic scale, the transformational body of the Buddha represents the phenomenal world. When a person is Enlightened, he sees through the illusion of the phenomenal world and experiences Cosmic Reality as the ultimate truth. This undifferentiated Cosmic Reality is called the Spiritual Body of the Buddha, or the Tathagata, which is the Sanskrit term literally meaning "Suchness" or "Thusness".

The Buddha or the Being, and the Tathagata or the Non-Being are therefore two aspects of the same reality. Because of spiritual ignorance, ordinary people see the Tathagata as the Buddha -- in other words, see transcendental reality as the phenomenal world. The law of karma operates in the phenomenal world. Thus, karma can be described as instances of the dialectical interplay of Being and Non-Being.



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