YMD3: What is karma? Appreciating karma as a contemplation rather than a doctrine

What is Karma and why should we care? Karma is the subject of the third of the four thoughts that turn the mind toward the dharma, which comprise the first “slogan” of the text we are looking at – The Root Text of Seven Points of Mind Training. This text is composed of 59 (sometimes 57) slogans, or pithy sayings to contemplate. The first slogan is “First, train in the preliminaries.” The first two of the four thoughts we worked with last week, the precious human birth and the contemplation of death.

Personally the death contemplation is always powerful. Over the week I combined the two with the breathing process, like this: on the inhale I just brought to mind the general idea by silently saying precious human birth, and on the outbreath saying someday I will die. I did this whenever I would remember to do it in daily life, and during the second half of my sittings.

Let’s now have a look at the third of the four thoughts that turn the mind toward the dharma, and ask again what is karma? Now the approach taken in this website is to try to appreciate Buddhism as a commonsense spiritual practice system. Karma is one of those pivotal, foundational concepts that we need to apply our commonsense filter to sort this out.

Of course, this sort of enterprise may be readily labeled as “un-Buddhist” and yes, in that sense this approach is guilty as charged.

What we are interested in here is how to deepen our spiritual life, how to face the world with grace and compassion, not necessarily in such questions as what did the Buddha teach or which is the “correct” Buddhist way to practice. Rather, we are interested in how I can make use of the wisdom of the Buddhist tradition to transform my life in a way that is meaningful for me right now. So we ask what is karma in this spirit.

At a certain point I had to had to critically re-evaluate all I had been painstakingly taught by my Buddhist teachers in the East, as I realized there was a massive disconnect between what I felt in my heart to be true and what I had been forcing myself to accept as true.

So this is where I am coming from in this site, and this YMD project. We naturally ask what is karma, and why should I care?

Two Ways to Look at Karma

I like to think of karma in two ways – as a Buddhist doctrine and as a spiritual, contemplative practice. Karma as a doctrine doesn’t do much for me, while karma as a practice does.

As a doctrine karma has been viewed as a way of explaining why things happen the way they do. Just to be clear, this website is just a collection of ways of spiritual practice that I personally have found beneficial; it is not an exposition of Buddhist doctrine (for which you can go to such sites as Access to Insight if you wish to study Theravada Buddhist doctrine). To be even clearer – my Buddhist journey over the past 34 years has been bumpy. I was what could consider a “good Buddhist” for around 28 of those years: attending many intensive silent retreats, becoming a monk in Sri Lanka, studying Pali language and the Buddha’s suttas with some very knowledgeable elder monk mentors there, all the while continuing to practice in an intensive manner in monasteries dedicated to the practice of anapanasati (breath awareness at the nostrils).

Then I went through an equally intensive period where I questioned nearly everything that I was taught. To do this I had to basically start all over and approach all the doctrines that were so meticulously taught to me one by one.

One of the greatest epiphanies I had in this re-examination process occurred when Jason Siff visited Hawaii to give a retreat last year. He and I had been “good Buddhist monks” in Sri Lanka. He shared with me a similar process he had gone through, a nearly identical one. He wrote eloquently about what he came up with at the end of this intensive questioning period in his life in his book Unlearning Meditation: What to Do When the Instructions Get In the Way.

Let’s talk about these two ways of looking at karma, and why the second way is much more meaningful for me – contemplation what is karma as a spiritual practice rather than as a teaching on why things happen the way they do.

Stephen Batchelor once remarked that in the East karma explains everything, which is to say it explains nothing at all.

How do we try to get a grip on why terrible bad things happen, especially when there is no reason for it? In our culture we often say “It’s God’s will.”

I remember watching an acceptance speech for an award like the Grammys – I don’t remember which award It was actually, but I seem to remember it was a vocalist – who immediately thanked Jesus, then her parents.

Am I being too cynical here to suggest this is just a bit naïve? I mean would Jesus be invested in someone winning a Grammy?

Of course, the rationale that is often offered is that God’s will is beyond the ability of our minds to grasp. Interestingly, this is the same kind of argument presented by Buddhist apologists (at least IMHO) when they say that the workings of karma are unknowable to the unenlightened, and even to the merely enlightened it is still not clear, as one would have to attain the realization of a Buddha to see how karma works. And that is tantamount to saying it is unknowable, as Buddhas are produced over an unimaginably long, long, long time scale.

Karma as a doctrine

Karma as a doctrine attempts to explain why in this life things happen the way they do. I remember hearing a practicing Buddhist meditator say that a short while after the 9/11 tragedy that every single one of those people who were killed were killed because it was the ripening of their individual karma, as karma is an individual affair.

Wait a minute here. Do you really mean that I asked? He replied most emphatically yes, and cited a Buddhist sutta to back this mind-boggling position. That indeed yes, every single one of those individuals committed horrendous actions in past lives and the karma has now ripened. All at once for each of them on that day, and every single one of them – including presumably the first responders – did unspeakably horrible things in previous lives, and they all just happened to all be together on that horrific morning in NYC.

Ok, is it only me or does this not strain the bounds of credulity?

That explanation I am sorry to say just does nothing for me. These people died. You could say they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Could it be that one reason why these explanations stick is because they are convenient ways to avoid the pain of bare, naked reality? A reality we contemplated full on last week in YMD2 – that I too will die, and my death could conceivably be just as random s the deaths of the victims of the 9/11 attacks. That my life could be snuffed out at any moment.

Karma as a doctrine does nothing for me. I can feel myself on certain levels of my mind attracted to it as it tells me that there is some kind of justice or sense to be made out of the world. But this is just a passing fantasy I simply, with a little chagrin, take note of and let go.

What is karma as a spiritual contemplation

This is entirely another matter, and for me a rewarding one. This is how I personally practice this third of the four thoughts that turn the mind to the dharma, the subject of this week’s YMD contemplation.

What is karma as a spiritual contemplation is very simple, as I think all commonsense aspects of Buddhist spirituality are. That’s why this site is called what it is.

How we view and interact with the world we perceive is affected directly by what we do in this world. And if we give close, careful and gentle attention to what we do in the world, a process of spiritual uplift is placed in motion. The closer and gentler the attention, the more we allow into awareness a type of self-awareness which when coupled with  certain ethical encouragements slowly begins to change the way we view the world. Which organically changes the way we act. Which changes the way we feel. And so on.

This is what I call putting into motion the process of spiritual uplift.

We are confronting our conditioning head on in this contemplation. We see that how we view the world and how we act in the world are to a great and unconscious extent conditioned. And this contemplation allows more of the previously unconscious conditioning into awareness.

This can be disconcerting, just like last week’s contemplation on death could have been disconcerting. But it is by gently staying open and present through our discomfort that real change takes place. And no lie this is hard. Because we lay bare the conditioning’s working, our deeply held, often rigid patterns of reactive behaviors and views. And as we stay open and present to these we can challenge their often irrational assumptions.

But we do this work with utmost gentleness. And a dedicated routine sitting practice – one in which at the beginning we sit on most days of the week for at least twenty minutes – is absolutely crucial for this work to organically unfold.

Karma as a spiritual contemplation is just to view our actions in the world, and appreciate how these actions are to some degree or other conditioned. We see how the awareness of our actions can lead us to gently take apart this conditioning. Caution: this is a lifetime job, not something we can get done with a few weeks of meditation and contemplation. But if done from the heart, you will see the gradual process of spiritual uplift becoming very real for you.

Contemplations for the week

The understanding that what we do and what we say and how we act and react in the world can either reinforce a deeply ingrained reactive pattern or be used as a means of directly accessing the mostly unconscious workings of these patterns and bring them into awareness…This is the key to unlocking the process of deep-seated radical personal change.

This week—just allow this idea to sink in.

Then try to see when strong reactive patterns come up for you, and bring to mind the contemplation of how this pattern was triggered, was it by something you are re-acting to? Was it in reaction to something you did—like feeling remorseful for some unskillful action you did?

This is a lifetime’s job, but we need to start somewhere.

Continue your routine meditation practice and see if you can work to increase the number of days in a week you sit or if you can extend the sittings by five or ten minutes.

See if this has any effect in how you can hold gently in awareness the workings of your conditioned patterns?

Try to look deeper and deeper at what you do, how you act and what you say, and what conditioned reactive patterns arise in conjunction with these actions.

Try to see that if you were to identify particularly problematic actions, and acted consciously to change how you acted, are there any differences in the patterns that were previously triggered?

This is a lot to take in I know. Just start with the small stuff, maybe changing the way you speak on the phone to someone who can push your buttons, and see how these changes in behavior may affect your overall emotional feelings?

Actually all the YMD contemplations and all the mind-training contemplations and all the Buddha’s teachings are all about getting free from the workings of our deeply conditioned patterns. The contemplation we are starting here is just getting our feet wet.

Dive in, the water’s fine.

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  1. People may call me naive or deluded, but I believe in Karma in its purest of meaning. We see in our present life of how so many bad people get away committing so many hateful crimes and you wonder how it all balances out. The answer is simple, Karma. You pay for your sins one way or another and you’re rewarded with good deeds one way or another. Karma is the balance that allows this world to continue its existence, even though it may often seem chaotic and unpredictable. All is balanced out by Karma.

  2. I look at karma as a teaching of way of life. In some sense it’s about being forced to do the right thing, but at the same time it doesn’t have to be such way, you could after all just want to do the right thing. Karma is not an exact system of taking and receiving, subtracting and adding, but rather a teaching that will guide you through this tumultuous life. At least this is the way I viewed karma until now, but this article makes me rethink about karma and redefine its meaning. I feel kind of lost now, but perhaps rethinking your stance on something very important in your life is not necessarily a bad thing.

  3. I’m enjoying this series Tom, thank you again for sharing with us. I can see the week ahead will be full of interesting contemplation & discovery.

  4. sorry..I guss what I am trying to say is that I can see spiritual practice inspired and infused by doctrine in my faith, and I can sort of see the dimension of practice where doctrine is set aside..so far so good. But my question is that in your “Buddhist” spirituality — it looks more mechanical than spiritual…if it is all about getting rid of of our layers and layers of conditioning, what’s spiritual about that?..it sounds more clinical than spiritual. Where is the spiritual in your view and why do you call it “commonsense Buddhist spirituality?” I get the commonsense…but not the spiritual. I guess I felt more comfortable thinking you were doctrinally Buddhist! I am sorry to ask so many questions, but you can see I am new to Buddhism and am really open to understanding not only with my head but my heart also. Thanks.

    1. Hi Brenda,

      Wow. I truly appreciate what I can only say is your courage for hanging in there so far with this material. I have such a warm place in my heart for the Catholic contemplative traditions, and have addressed this warmth in a series of five blog posts on what for me is a true classic in the treasury of world spirituality — the Cloud of Unknowing (see five post series starting with “A rainmaking cloud–cloud reflections 1.”

      Now regarding your comments, I think I see what you are saying, and wow…you really need to be applauded. I also am tremendously concerned with finding ways that the different faiths and spiritual practitioners can find true meaning in each others’ practice. And it is truly heartening to see a person such as yourself, obviously deeply commited to your Catholic faith, trying to find meaning in Buddhist spirituality. I am honored that you have chosen to take part in this online “course” or series of weekly contemplations.

      I also have practiced Centering Prayer and hold very dear in my heart the teachings within this tradition of Cynthia Bourgeault, and have listened to her give talks during her Centering Prayer retreats on CDs.

      Now the issue of practicing spirituality and leaving aside doctrines..well, I didn’t say all doctrines (yes, I am a renegade of sorts) .. what I mean is to see if one’s practice is crippled by adherence to any doctrine or not. Any most certainly if there is no crippling then there is problem.

      Now you raise a tremendous question here that is just a wellspring of ideas and nuances to consider. Am I am so happy you brought it up — if the path as I suggest is simply one in which the practitioner peels away and discards level after level of conditioning, what is spiritual in that? And that this seems to describe a process that is more clinical than spiritual.

      I can’t really answer this very well right now, honestly, because yes I do regard the heart of the process of deepening spiritual practice that way, and yes, it does seem more clinical than spiritual.

      And yes, this is a really awesome issue to consider.

      (Perhaps I should have prepped for this comment reply!)

      What comes to mind here is really two-fold:

      — once the layers of conditioning are peeled back we bring forth more and more of our essential sub-strate, which in Mahayana Buddhism is termed our “Buddha Nature.” From an experiencial perspecvtive this is felt to be increasingly “spiritual” as the uncovering process deepens;

      — there are wonderful stepping stones we can use along the way, which I personally do find tremendously valuable, the bringing to mind idealized figures (much like Saints) who embody the various spirital values and attributes the practitioner aspires to attain; we were introduced to Avalokiteshvara in YMD1. I will talk much more in depth about this asopect, which for many taps into a deeply spiritual dimension of practice.

      I know I have been awfully brief here Brenda, but I would love it if you were to use the “Contact Me Privately” page on the upper right sidebar so we could continue this conversation?

      I most certainly will adresss these issues in the fuiture posts in this series.

      Thanks so so much Brenda for your thoughtful comments, and I would love to hear about your progress as we go further along.


  5. Ok…now jusy FYI..I am a practicing Catholic (I practice Centering Prayer) and your site was recommended to me via a friend on Facebbok. Tom, I am really not sure where you are coming from here, and doubly so because of my Catholic formation, which BTW I hold dearer to me than anything. But i just sort of did what you suggested here and tolerated my reaction to reading this, and now I can say that I will keep following this course, as my first reaction was to just drop it as it made no sense. But I can see where if we set aside doctrine as you say, there is a way to embrace the spiritual life that is simply on a different but equal (for me anyway) dimension. I am really really concerned with how different faiths can talk to each other meaningfully, and maybe I have something to gain by contiunuing this exploration. Thanks, Tom, this is challenging but what I like is that this is a non-threatening way to learn what Buddhist spirituality is like. All for now.

  6. Hi Tom- Thank you for this. I have been thinking about death as well. I wonder, karmacly- is that word?:) – why a friend is dying the way he is, after a long battle with cancer and beating it(!) and now in hospice after a massive stroke. The meditations and your guidance on them is helping. Thank you.

    1. Hi Jen. I am glad the practices are helping. For me being kind of dense at times, when I do the precious human body and the death meditations, never fail, I can sense my “self-cherishing” mind settling down and I get a feeling of being fragile and fortunate. The situation with your friend is heart breaking. What can one say? In the context of these meditations I can feel like OK I get it…and then then just being in the mystery of it all just makes me want to cry. I give up trying to find any easy answers (like karma hepls, but does it really?)…and just hug my kids and Katina and am happy for every minute of this crazy thing we’ve all been flung into. For me things are just as they are, heartbreaking as they are. The “why” is just a way to wiggle out of the pain. This probably doesn’t help you at all right now and I truly wish I had to wisdom to say something helpful. So Jen, I have told folks at the sittings that yo’re with us even though you are far away. Please let us know how it’s going for you. Take care … tom

  7. The example of how you worked with the preciousness of life/certainty of death contemplation was helpful as I think “contemplating” can be interpreted in so many ways. Thanks for sharing more about your life’s spiritual path – it’s helpful to understand your context. I like your take on the concept of Karma here as a sort of tool to unveil our conditioning. Great work on A Simple Path launch!

    1. Hi Noah. Thanks for your kind words. Regarding how tips on how to actually do the contemplations, yes I agree, there are so many ways to interpret this. I will try to offer specific ways to do the various contemplations. Also have a look at what I wrote about this on the YMD page, there I have a couple of paragraphs on general suggestions on brass-tacks regarding these series of contemplations. ~ Tom

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