Realizing that what we send out in the way of thoughts and actions will inevitably return gives us the incentive to do what is right to better our lives and destiny. As the Buddhists and Christians explain:
All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage.
. . . If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him like a shadow that never leaves him. -- Dhammapada 1:1-2
For every man shall bear his own burden. . . . For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting. And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not. -- Galatians 6:5, 7-9
In fact, every religion presents this idea, but few people, apparently, understand or accept it. Granted, karma is a complicated subject and leaves many wondering: What exactly is karma, and how does it work? Can, or should, we seek to escape "bad karmic situations"? And why has karma been called a compassionate law?
First of all, karma has many aspects and levels of operation. Derived from the verbal root kri, which means "to do'' or ``to act," it implies action; and action -- which is movement fueled by desire -- brings universes and all their inhabitants repeatedly into being and energizes them through their continuing cycles of existence.
How does karma work? The philosophical writings of the Jains of ancient India explain this graphically. They tell us that whenever a conscious being desires or expresses strong feelings or thoughts, he opens his nature to an influx of "karmic atomic matter." This ethereal substance thereupon mingles and interacts with the karmic molecules of and surrounding his being and produces aggregates of etheric particles which either immediately color and cloud his perception or, attaching themselves to the sheaths of his soul, lie dormant like seeds until appropriate conditions arise for them to ripen and express themselves in his life.
For example, the intensity of anger and fear that drives a person to murder, attracts dark, heavy, and disruptive karmic material which, settling upon his soul like a "cocoon of a silkworm," clouds and obstructs the flow of his mental, emotional, and physical forces so that his judgment is obscured and corrupted. Such karmic obstructions may adhere for lifetimes, burdening each incarnation with handicaps and problems, until the murderer takes action to dissolve these deposits and replace them with others that are bright and harmonious.
Bright and harmonious deposits, on the other hand, are produced by kindly and virtuous thoughts which, being pellucid and light in weight, benefit sender and receiver alike. In addition, they refine our nature so that our judgment is clear and we are able not only to see what is true, but to express ourselves with understanding and beauty.
Furthermore, these karmic aggregates endure after death and carry karmic potential into future incarnations. In this way we inherit ourselves, for at each new birth we are the sum total physically, psychologically, and spiritually of the factors we acquired in the past. Thus karma works on all levels of our nature at one and the same time.
Haven't we all felt uplifted when we thought about something spiritual, or when we did something unselfish and kindly? Even though we know little about our spiritual nature or its activities, we presume, in cases like this, that it is its influence that makes us feel good. Traditional healers have always known this; while today, more and more physicians are prescribing love and meditation for a variety of mental and physical dis-eases.
This karmic interaction throughout our multifold nature is most apparent at the psychomental level where our human consciousness is centered. From there we are constantly generating karmic energy-substance that flows forth and affects all parts of our (and others') constitutions.
Reflecting upon this karmic interaction between our bodies, souls, and spirits, and all their components, we begin to realize that we are not an assemblage of separate parts or separate beings, but a oneness that works and suffers together just as members of a family, community, or nation benefit and suffer from the karma engendered by each individual. This brings to mind the advice of H. P. Blavatsky's teacher:
Do not be ever thinking of yourself and forgetting that there are others; for you have no karma of your own, but the karma of each one is the karma of all. -- Echoes of the Orient 1:482
Indeed, one kind thought can open our nature to blessings that may fan out to benefit thousands. One unkind thought can attract a virus that not only poisons our system but spreads to others karmically susceptible. Still another thought can affect the behavior of hundreds, bringing them back time and again to the fields of their plantings. For every person involved there is no escape; sooner or later the energy exerted will come around again when conditions and instruments are propitious. Lifetimes hence, perhaps, opportunities will be presented to the original participants so that their unfinished business may be completed.
Some think that karma is administered by a Christian-type God who rewards the good and punishes evildoers. In reality, each individual makes his own karma: we are our karma. We reward and punish ourselves: every incident and situation we find ourselves in is the result of causes we generated in the past. Daily we observe how loving thoughts and deeds make us happy and healthy; mean and selfish thoughts and deeds sicken and depress us and those around us, turning them from us in anger or fear. H. P. Blavatsky put this nicely:
But verily there is not an accident in our lives, not a misshapen day, or a misfortune, that could not be traced back to our own doings in this or in another life. If one breaks the law of Harmony . . . one must be prepared to fall into the chaos one has oneself produced. . . . Karma-Nemesis is no more than the (spiritual) dynamical effect of causes produced and forces awakened into activity by our own actions. -- The Secret Doctrine 1:643-4
Actually karma is neither good nor bad, as we often think it is. According to William Q. Judge:
Good karma is that act and thought which is pleasing to the Higher Self. Hence sorrow and pain and discipline may be good karma. Bad karma is that act and thought which displeases the Higher Self. Hence all self-seeking acts, no matter how high and outwardly virtuous they are, are bad karma, since the Higher Self desires no such acts for its sake. -- Echoes of the Orient 2:335
In other words, good karma is that which offers opportunity for growth, for developing the qualities that will help us resolve or harmonize the negative forces we sent forth in the past. Toward this end the Greeks made a suggestion: "Welcome a stranger who knocks at your door. He may be a god in disguise." That is, welcome whatever comes as an opportunity and give it your best.
Here is where free will comes in. While every being possesses a modicum of free will, we, having lived through all kinds of experiences, are capable of choosing whether to lash out at someone who offends us, or to try to understand and help him, knowing that our action will either add to the burdens he, and we, bear, or free us both from further entanglements.
Does this mean that we should let the wrongdoer go unpunished? Isn't it our duty to see that justice is done and that we and others are protected? Questions like this take reflection. To help sort it out, let's consider that while his karma and ours stand apart, they intermix whenever we interact, especially if emotions are aroused and we denounce, condemn, or injure each other. But if we choose to act with calm detachment, we will not only balance the scales but benefit each other for lifetimes.
This raises the question of whether it is wise to forsake an opportunity that may have been lifetimes in the making. Again, words from the wise may help us find answers: "No man's burden is greater than he can bear." "The stronger the man, the greater his trials." "Everything that comes is a chance for improvement." The todays that seem shrouded with darkness are undoubtedly those chrysalis stages from which our souls will emerge -- if we weary not -- stronger and wiser.
Then, too, let's bear in mind that absolutely nothing can touch us that is not ours. No one will be injured in a plane crash, or by fire or earthquake, unless it is his or her karma. This idea of facing the future unafraid is presented in the Bhagavad Gita (ch. 2) in Krishna's advice to his pupil Arjuna who, standing on the battlefield, refused to fight lest he bring death to his kinsmen and friends. Krishna tells him that nothing can be accomplished by inaction, and that the way to success in any endeavor is to perform one's duties with passions subdued and heart fixed in devotion upon the Supreme. Such a one is unattached to the fruits of his action, unswayed by thoughts of pleasure or pain, gain or loss, victory or defeat, knowing that karma will render justice in every situation. Such a one, as the Jains might say, draws to himself that bright karmic substance which blesses one and all.
Similar ideas are presented by Bo Lozoff, whose books have helped prisoners around the world. In them he explains that being in jail may be the result not only of the crime they committed; more basically, it is their karmic opportunity to settle old debts, come closer to truth, and find their real self. He further points out that because prison life is so intense, so negative and difficult, it offers opportunities to work off old karma in a short time that otherwise would take ages. To Lozoff karma is a combination of "dues and opportunities," the "dues" being what we owe others, the "opportunities" situations in which we can resolve conflicts and move on. Thinking about this we realize how just and compassionate karma is. What could be more compassionate than being given a chance to right old wrongs and in the process grow greater? This is particularly true in regard to reincarnation. At each birth we come into life bearing the baggage we packed in the past -- minus memory of its contents and the price we paid. Thus we are able to face what comes with high expectations, give it our all and, hopefully, turn hurts into blessings and failures into successes.
Another compassionate aspect of karma is how often it makes our wishes come true. Should we want to be loved, for instance, we may find ourselves in situations where love is needed. By giving we receive. Should we wish to be a fine singer or artist, or to be virtuous, kind, and patient, situations will arise in which we can become what we desire. But in the process we, like gold, will be tried in the fire. For this reason, Buddhists regard misfortunes as blessings, and being born amid poverty and neglect a most desirable birth if it provides opportunity to help others. Such situations are the "dues/opportunities" which Bo Lozoff referred to, that come not as punishment but as educational benefit. Education means unfolding, unfolding the treasure we have stored in our souls. This is the good or spiritual karma we can draw on to transform our lives and to bless all those we embrace with our love.
(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 1999; copyright © 1999 Theosophical University Press)