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What is Karma?

June 1, 2008

BBC News
May 29, 2008

Sharon Stone claims the earthquake in China is the result of bad
karma for its treatment of Tibetans. Is her definition - "when you
are not nice, bad things happen to you" - correct?

Radiohead sings of the "karma police", called in to arrest those who
upset Thom Yorke: "This is what you get when you mess with us." And
Boy George warbles about a "karma chameleon", in a toxic relationship
because he's not "so sweet" anymore.

Cause and effect, see. Actions have consequences.

Law of karma holds that actions have consequences
Ethical intention behind an action affects outcome
Other factors also come into play

And Sharon Stone, a convert to Buddhism, has claimed - to much
criticism - that the earthquake that killed at least 68,000 people in
China was bad karma for Beijing policy in Tibet. "I thought, is that
karma - when you're not nice that the bad things happen to you?" she
mused at the Cannes Film Festival.

Karma is an important concept for Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs.
Translated from the Sanskrit, it means simply "action". Because karma
is used in a number of ways and contexts - even among different
branches of Buddhism - this can be confusing.

Dhammadassin, a teacher at the London Buddhist Centre, says that
Stone's take on karma is common - glossed over as an outcome that is
the result of something done in the past - or even a past life.

"This reduces the enormously complex matter of causes and their
effects to a question of retribution meted out for unspecified
previous actions," she says.

But the law of karma states that it's the motive behind one's actions
that affects the outcome of that particular act.

"So an intentionally ethical action - for example to promote
kindness, generosity, contentment - is more likely to have positive,
beneficial consequences. An intentionally unethical one - to promote
self-aggrandisement or greed - will be more likely to have unhelpful,
even harmful consequences. Unhelpful, that is, for the positive
well-being of either the doer or the recipient or both."

In a complex world, it's too simplistic to expect that a positive
intention will always have a positive outcome as many factors are
involved, she says.


The idea of moral causation has long been held in India, but the
doctrine of karma was formulated and explained by the Buddha, a
spiritual teacher thought to have lived about 2,500 years ago. Some
believe that he was a human who became enlightened; others that he was a god.


A regular part of the BBC News Magazine, Who, What, Why? aims to
answer some of the questions behind the headlines

His teachings hold that whatever comes into existence does so in
response to the conditions at the time, and in turn affects what
comes after it.

Sangharakshita, the Briton who founded the Friends of the Western
Buddhist Order in 1967, explains this with the following example in
his book Who Is The Buddha? "Rainfall, sunshine, and the nourishing
earth are the conditions from which arises the oak tree, whose fallen
leaves rot and form the rich humus from which the bluebell grows."

Dhammadassin says that despite its simplicity, this example reflects
the inter-connectedness of our world, "in which our views, attitudes,
opinions and intentions all have a part to play in creating our
actions and their consequences". And what many call karma is actually
closer to the idea of poetic justice, she says.

Nor do Buddhists believe karma is the only cause - others are:

     * inorganic or environmental factors, such as the weather
     * organic or biological factors, like bacteria or viruses
     * psychological factors such as stress
     * and transcendental or spiritual factors (such as the sometimes
powerful galvanizing effect of spiritual practice)

"The earthquake in China or the cyclone in Burma have much to do with
environmental factors," says Dhammadassin. "To invoke karma is more
to do with our desire to nail things down and find someone to blame.
But that's not ours to do."
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