What is karma?

What is karma?

Popular version of karma

As a popular teaching, the Buddhist doctrine of karmic fruition (karmavipāka) is relatively easy to understand and poses few problems. In the popular Buddhist view, the law of karma is a principle of nature, according to which a person who acts in a certain way must later experience consequences that are pleasant or unpleasant, depending upon the nature of the action itself. Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, a modern Tibetan author, thus explains the law of karma as a special case of the general law of cause and effect.

Karmic seeds inevitably ripen in accordance with their cause, i.e., virtue leads to joy, and non-virtue to sorrow.1

Another modern Tibetan author, Geshe Rabten, states the matter even more forcefully:

Just as a seed cannot grow into a plant of a different type, so our actions can only produce actions of their own type. An unvirtuous action can only give rise to suffering, and a positive action can only give rise to happiness. This order can never be mixed up.2

According to the accounts of karmic fruition given by these Buddhists, no emotional state arises by chance or fate or luck; rather, every mood that a living being may have is the natural fruition of actions performed in the past. There is, therefore, no injustice in a universe that has as an essential part of its structure a natural moral dimension. This moral dimension is in the Buddhist view as much an invariable part of the natural universe as are such physical dimensions as the law of gravity and the laws of thermodynamics.

The popular version of the law of karma as presented above by various modern Buddhist writers is evidently well suited as a metaphysical foundation for the traditionally eudaemonic ethical guidelines of Buddhism. This doctrine gives the appearance, on the surface at least, of being well grounded in ordinary experience. Wrongdoing does, in the experience of most people, give rise to such unpleasant mental states as remorse and feelings of guilt, and these unpleasant mental states do seem to be as much a natural consequence of wrongdoing as becoming overweight seems to be a natural consequence of eating the wrong kinds of food. But how does the law of karma fare under the constraints of the more precise and rigorous presentations of Buddhist theory known as abhidharma?


  1. Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, Tibetan Tradition of Mental Development. (Dharamsala, India: Library of Tibetan Works & Archives, 1974), 71. ↩︎
  2. Geshe Rabten, The Essential Nectar. (London: Wisdom Publications, 1984), 114. ↩︎

Works cited

  • Ngawang Dhargyey, Geshe. Tibetan Tradition of Mental Development: Oral Teachings of a Tibetan Lama. Dharamsala, India: Library of Tibetan Works & Archives, 1974.
  • Rabten, Geshe. The Essential Nectar: Meditations on the Buddhist Path: An Explanation of the Lam Rim Text of Yeshe Tsöndrü Entitled the Essential Nectar of the Holy Doctrine, and the Text Itself. A Wisdom Basic Book, ed. Martin Willson, and Ye-śes-brtson-ʾgrus. London: Wisdom Publications, 1984.

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