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Exploring other Faiths: The Doctrine of Karma


Karma and Karmic Cycles are a particular well-known element of Buddhism. It is, however, greatly misunderstood by many non-followers. The adage of ‘you reap what you sow’ goes some length to describe the place that it has in an individual’s life but does not fully grasp the concept.

It should be noted from the beginning that the different schools of Buddhism have different doctrinal approaches to the idea.

Buddhas Teaching

For the Buddha there were three marks of existence. They are as follows:

1. Impermanence

2. Suffering

3. Non-self

It is important to understand the interwoven nature of Buddhism, that is to say that the 3 marks also involve elements of Karma. Although there is the truth of suffering, it is impermanent. Karma plays a role in the level of suffering an individual may experience in their life.

The self – the atman- is also impermanent but deep within it there resides a certain level of consciousness; it is this consciousness that Karma attaches itself to and it is this which an individual inherits as they move through their numerous life cycles.

What is Karma?

It is complicated, due to the interwoven nature of all things inherent in Buddhism to define it absolutely: however, the Buddha simply said, ‘Karma is intention’. Meaning the root of Karma is in the mind.

This means that there is a potentiality for all individual’s to be born in equality; every being comes into the world with the same responsibility to any other being. Yet depending on one’s place in their birth cycle they may be at an advantage, or a disadvantage based on the ‘Karma Baggage’ they bring into the world. However, this problem speaks directly to the heart of the Buddhist. Buddhism is about human responsibility and ability; it is a deeply practical practice based around ‘doing’.

Karma becomes the impetus to lead a better life, a good Buddhist should be a mirror to society. Inborn in this, is the idea of moral cause and effect, which in some manner attaches to the idea of the no-self that Buddha spoke about.

Different types of Karma

There is a hierarchy of Karma, much like the Catholic church having mortal and venal sins:

1. Heavy Karma- the killing of an individual

2. Habitual Karma- daily practise and lifestyle choices

3. Death proximity Karma- for those in palliative care

4. Miscellaneous Karma- any other type of action

How does one change Karma?

Other than ‘heavy karma’ it is possible to change one’s Karma. It is, as mentioned, the very drive of a Buddhist.

To follow the eightfold path, is a way to gain merit; gaining merit is the way one can have a good rebirth.

It is possible to follow the path in two ways: a high-level follower is called a Lokuttara, this would be a monk or someone who has selected to reborn again in any form to further teach Buddhism to other beings. The second, is the more mundane level, lokiya, of the general laity.

The path consists of three categories and eight steps, for the monk this can be up to ten steps.

The way of wisdom constitutes 1) The correct view of Dhamma, as taught by Buddha and 2) the right intention, that is to follow the teachings of the Buddha.

The way of morality involves the correct application of speech, no lies, no gossip for example, and right action: this takes on a number of things including no killing, no stealing, no illicit sex, and no mind altering substances.

Finally, the way of mental development, means the right effort, right mindfulness and correct concentration. Falling this path helps an individual develop ‘skill’ which leads to a better rebirth.

Response as a non-Buddhist

Although the overarching conundrum for many is between freewill and predestination; the right to choose v the fatalistic surety. These shape the lives of others not involved in Buddhism. If one is not prepared to accept the doctrine of Karma, it is clear that sticking to the ‘practise of Buddhism’, that is the following of the eightfold path, can still be a noble and beneficial pursuit. It implores morality and gentleness on the individual.

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