What is Karma?

One of the Four Noble Truths in Buddhism is the law of karma, which is Sanskrit for “action.” Many people are familiar with this concept as “what goes around comes around,” but this is still an elementary viewpoint. Here are two ways we can look at karma to gain a deeper understanding.

  1. Karma as an inertial property of the mind.
    From Newton’s first law, we know that physical matter has the property of inertia. A moving object will continue on in the same direction indefinitely, unless acted upon by an outside force. Mental objects, such as our behaviors and thoughts, have the same property. If we think ill of others, act in anger, or grasp at selfhood, these compulsive behaviors get buried deep in our unconscious mind and don’t end when we die. These mental objects, or “karmic seeds”, continue on in the same trajectory until we are flung into a new body. This is the actual mechanism of cyclic, interdependent existence, known to Judaism as gilgulim and Buddhism as samsara. Only through cultivation can we step outside the orbit of our thoughts, and finally bring an end to their motion.
  2. Karma as nondual action.
    The principle of nonduality can be understood with the following analogy. In your body are many cells that might understand themselves as individual beings. To a blood cell, your body would look a certain way, to a neuron, your body might look another way. Your cells have no idea that they are just a part of a very complicated organ system in a much larger, much more complicated living being. Similarly, we humans must also understand ourselves as each a part of a much more complicated organism that is all of reality. Nonduality is the realization that It’s All One Thing. Whatever happens in this One Thing is it doing it to itself. We must realize that on some level, we are equal and equivalent to every other sentient being in reality. When we hurt others, we are hurting ourselves. When we are compassionate to others, we are compassionate to ourselves. By realizing the law of nondual karma, we can ascend from the consciousness level of a red blood cell to the consciousness level of a person, and then to the consciousness level of a Buddha, or awakened being.

We will go into greater depth on nonduality in future posts.

With metta,



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