Karma is one of those words we don't translate. Its basic meaning is simple enough-action-but because of the weight the Buddha's teachings give to the role of action, the Sanskrit word karma packs in so many implications that the English word action can't carry all its luggage. This is why we've simply airlifted the original word into our vocabulary.
But when we try unpacking the connotations the word carries now that it has arrived in everyday usage, we find that most of the luggage has gotten lost in transit. In the eyes of most Americans, karma functions like fate-bad fate, at that: an inexplicable, unchangable force coming out of our past, for which we are somehow vaguely responsible and powerless to fight. "I guess it's just my karma," I've heard people sigh when bad fortune strikes with such force that the only course they see open to themselves is resigned acceptance. This has very little to do with the original Buddhist concept.
We've all been taught that Buddhism picked up the idea of karma from its Indian milieu. Many of us assume that the Buddhist concept of karma differs little from the pre-Buddhist concept, that it's part of the Indian soil still clinging to the roots of the teaching. When we look at the Pali texts, though, we discover that the early Buddhists were very clear on the fact that their ideas about karma were integral to their teaching and radically different from everything else in India at the time. In fact, when they wanted to point to what made their teachings distinctive, they pointed to their theory of karma.
ideas on karma were distinctive in four ways:
1) Unlike other Indian schools, who saw karma as a physical power, early Buddhists taught that the power of karma was determined by the mind: the views and intentions underlying a particular action. If an action was motivated by greed, anger, or delusion, it was inherently unskillful and would lead to suffering. If the motivation was free of greed, anger, and delusion, the action was skillful and would lead to happiness.
2) Because karma was determined by the mind, it was not ritualistic. There were no prescribed words or gestures that carried any inherent karmic power. Ritual actions and mantras could not create good karma for the future, or cancel out bad karma from the past.
3) Early Buddhists were also unusual in seeing karma as non-linear. Other Indian schools believed that karma operated in a straight line, with actions from the past influencing the present, and present actions influencing the future. As a result, they saw little room for free will. Buddhists, however, saw that karma acts in feedback loops, with the present moment being shaped both by past and by present actions; present actions shape not only the future but also the present. This constant opening for present input into the causal process made free will possible. This freedom is symbolized in the imagery the Buddhists used to explain the process: flowing water. Sometimes the flow from the past is so strong that little can be done except to stand fast, but there are also times when the flow is gentle enough to be diverted in almost any direction.
4) Finally, early Buddhists saw that if the views and intentions in the mind were skillfully trained, the process of karma could not only lead to further happiness in the realm of cause and effect, but also be used to dismantle that realm and lead beyond karma entirely. This was the teaching of release.
These four points boil down to the central Buddhist teaching: if the mind is properly trained to be clear about what it is doing in the present moment, its karma can take it beyond all suffering and stress. Thus, instead of promoting resigned powerlessness, the early Buddhist notion of karma focused on the liberating potential of what the mind is doing with every moment. Who you are-what you come from-is not anywhere near as important as the mind's motives for what it is doing right now.
This view, of course, flew right in the face of the Indian traditions of caste-based hierarchies, and explains why the Buddhists had such a field day poking fun at the pretensions and mythology of the brahmins. As the Buddha pointed out, a brahmin could be a superior person not because he came out of a brahmin womb, but only if he acted with truly skillful intentions.
We read the early Buddhist attacks on the caste system, and aside from their anti-racist implications, they often strike us as quaint. What we fail to realize is that they strike right at the heart of American culture: our obsession with defining who we are in terms of where we come from-our race, ethnic heritage, gender, socio-economic background, sexual preference-our modern tribes. We put inordinate amounts of energy into creating and maintaining the mythology of our tribe so that we can take vicarious pride in our tribal identity. Even when we become Buddhists, the tribe comes first. We demand a Buddhism that honors our myths.
From the standpoint of karma, though, where we come from is old karma, over which we have no control. What we "are" is a nebulous concept at best--and pernicious at worst, when we use it to find excuses for acting on unskillful motives. The worth of a tribe lies only in the skillful actions of its individual members. Even when those good people belong to our tribe, their good karma is theirs, not ours. And, of course, every tribe has its bad members, which means that the mythology of the tribe is a fragile thing. To hang onto anything fragile requires a large investment of passion, aversion, and delusion, leading inevitably to more unskillful actions on into the future.
So the Buddhist teachings on karma, far from being a quaint relic from the past, are a direct challenge to a basic thrust--and basic flaw--in our culture. Only when we abandon our obsession with finding vicarious pride in our tribal past, and can take actual pride in the motives that underlie our present actions, can we say that the word karma has recovered its luggage. And when we open the luggage, we'll find that it's brought us a gift: the gift we give ourselves and one another when we drop our myths about who we are, and can instead be honest about what we're doing with each moment--at the same time making the effort to do it right.