Karma. Even people with no prior knowledge of Buddhism are probably somewhat familiar with this term. Karma in its simplest form is the law of cause and effect. Do good to others and you will in turn benefit from good acts done for you. Harm others and you will then be subjected to harmful actions. Simple enough, right?
But what about the Buddhist philosophy on God? And how are Buddhism's ideas about God and Karma interconnected? Well read on.
Karma and Vipaka
So I kind of lied (I hope I don't get any negative Karma for that one). Karma isn't actually the cause and effect. It's just the cause. The effect is actually called Vipaka. Karma usually refers specifically to one's intentions while doing an act. However, I did read a story in Record of Miracles of Good and Evil Karmic Retribution in the Kingdom of Japan by Kyokai that told a story about the Karmic result of an unintended action. The story tells of a monk living in the mountains who randomly throws a pebble that happens to hit and kill and bird. The bird is then reborn as a boar on the very same mountain. The boar accidentally dislodges a boulder while hunting for food, which falls and kills the monk. So while Karma generally refers to intentional acts, unintentional acts can also have unintended consequences.
Karma encompasses the thoughts, words, and actions of man. Karma also includes both the past and the present. One of the basic ideas of the Karma-Vipaka relationship is that the effect will be similar to the cause. For example, in the story above the man kills with a rock and is then himself killed by a rock. The effect will also be similar in severity to the seriousness of the cause.
It is important to note that the Karma-Vipaka relationship should not be viewed as a reward and punishment system. It is simply the result of the inevitable effects of the law of Karma.
The Law of Karma
Karma is in fact viewed as a law in Buddhism. It essentially governs the universe (except for fully enlightened beings) and is responsible for answering many of the questions that have been pondered by man. Why is one man born into luxury, while another is born into poverty? Why are people born ugly? Why are some people predisposed to addiction? Well, you can throw the Nature vs. Nurture argument out the window. It's Karma.
Some of the sources that I read tried to liken the Buddhist view of Karma to actual scientific laws, which I found somewhat ridiculous. I'm a pretty firm believer that science and religion are inherently opposite ideas as one is based upon fact and one is based upon faith and therefore science cannot be used to prove religion, or vice versa. I mean come on. I read one source that tried to use Newton's third law to justify Karma. To state the obvious, Newton refers to equal and opposite reactions, which is itself the opposite of the Karma-Vipaka relationship. But I digress...
Effect on Rebirth
How long does it take Karma to impact our lives? Well there is the idea of instant Karma, but this is considered to be extremely rare. Even Karma that produces an effect in the same lifetime is not extremely common. Karma generally takes many lifetimes to manifest itself. Some Karma even has effects on multiple lifetimes. For example, a murderer will go to hell to eliminate the negative Karma that resulted from his deed. However, he will also probably live a very short life when he is finally reborn out of hell. Rebirth in any of the realms is the direct effect of Karma. Rebirth in either the Human or Deva realms results from positive Karma, while rebirth in the other realms is the effect of negative Karma. As stated before, even rebirth in hell is not necessarily viewed as punishment, but simply as a necessary action in order to eliminate the negative Karma that accumulated from bad actions in previous lives.
Is There a Connection Between Karma and Enlightenment?
Only through the elimination of Karma can one attain enlightenment. Karma leads to suffering and enlightenment is the escape from suffering, so the two things cannot intermingle. However, good Karma allows a person to continue to be born as a human, which is essential for enlightenment. For this reason, Karma plays a very important role in achieving enlightenment. It should be noted that Karma does not itself lead to enlightenment. This can only be achieved through the understanding of the true nature of reality and the love of all beings.
Similarity to Other Religions
Hinduism - Very similar to the Buddhist view of Karma. There are many differences between the two religions (such as the belief in a soul or the belief in God), but Karma is an essential aspect to both religions.
Christianity - Many people make the argument that Galations 6: 7-9 are very "Karma-like" verses in the bible. In these verses Paul makes the claim that "whatever a man soweth, that shall he also reap". There is certainly the idea in Christianity that actions in this life will have future effects. However, the big difference of course in Christianity is the concept of grace. While Buddhists believe that all Karma will have future effects, Christians believe that God will forgive their sins.
Judaism - The Jewish view on Karma is similar to that of Christianity in that they believe in the cause and effect of actions, but also believe that God can override Karma.
Islam - Again, the same as the other monotheistic religions in that they believe in doing good deeds, but believe that God is the ultimate judge.
God in Buddhism
One of the realms of rebirth in Buddhism is the Deva realm, which consists of beings with powers that exceed those of humans. However, Buddhists in general (there are some sects that differ) do not believe in God in the traditional western sense of the word. They do not believe in a creator or a supreme judge of human beings. Buddhists actually believe that the idea of God develops as a result of fear. While other religious types put faith in God to pull them through a difficult situation, Buddhists believe that one should try to lessen these fears through understanding. Buddhists believe that over the course of many lifetimes a person can achieve enlightenment without divine intervention.
Karma as a Replacement for God
This is a bit of a stretch, but Karma in a sense is the God of the Buddhist religion. Karma governs all beings in the universe with the exception of those that have attained enlightenment. Karma of course did not create the universe (Buddhism does not address the topic of creation), but it does control the beings that reside within it. In much the same way that the major monotheistic religions in the world teach that there is no escape from the judgement of God, Buddhism teaches that there is no escape from Karma (except of course enlightenment). Good deeds will result in good rewards, while bad actions will have negative consequences.
So Buddhism is very different from traditional western religions, and in some senses it isn't even really a religion at all. I am definitely finding it interesting to investigate a school of thought that is so different from the traditions back home. I think my next few Buddhism posts are going to focus on the Three Jewels.