Pema Chödrön: The idea of karma is that you continually get the teachings that you need to open your heart

The idea of karma is that you continually get the teachings that you need to open your heart.

– Pema Chödrön

I like this way of looking at it. It is direct, immediate, and gives us a very useful pointer.

Another way to put it is that there is an invitation in all of our experiences to open our heart, question our thoughts, and notice what we really are. The idea of “teaching” can make it a bit heavy and feed into guilt and shoulds while invitation seems a bit gentler and more open.

We can also say that it’s all happening within and as the divine. It’s all the play of the divine, whether it’s the divine temporarily and locally taking itself as a separate being in a much larger world, using situations to reinforce a sense of separation, or finding ways to use situations to open up to the larger whole and eventually noticing itself as the divine.

Of course, all of these ideas – including teaching, invitation, karma, and lila – are ideas imposed on reality. We project them onto reality.

And some ideas, like the idea of karma as an invitation for opening the heart, can be very useful and helpful.

Karma is instant, and other types of karma

Karma means action, work or deed; it also refers to the spiritual principle of cause and effect where intent and actions of an individual (cause) influence the future of that individual (effect). Good intent and good deeds contribute to good karma and happier rebirths, while bad intent and bad deeds contribute to bad karma and bad rebirths.

– Wikipedia article on Karma

The modern western understanding of karma is that we do something, and we reap the consequences in this life or the next.

This can happen in a few different ways.

There is a form of instant and inevitable karma. If I blindly fuel and act on anger, I inevitably suffer. If I am able to notice, allow, and rest with the anger, and perhaps notice the fear and the fearful thoughts it’s rooted in, there is more peace.

And the same goes for anything triggered in me. Any stressful thoughts. Any uncomfortable emotions or feelings. When I get caught in it and act on it, I suffer. When I am able to notice, allow, rest with it, and see what’s behind it (usually a wound, trauma, fear), there is more peace.

Whatever I do is strengthened as a pattern or habit. If there is reactivity in me, and I am able to notice, take a step back, allow, relate to it more consciously, and not act on it, that pattern is slightly strengthened. If I instead act on it blindly, that pattern is strengthened. This is one form of karma. And it applies to whatever I do in mind or action.

Along the same lines, there are the “inner” causes and consequences. If I am more authentic with myself and others, I am more likely to feel centered, grounded, and content. (Although it may also bring some temporary discomfort when I go against what others expect or want from me.) If I cultivate a habit of genuine gratitude, I am more likely to feel content, grateful, and at peace. If I cultivate a habit of complaining and blame, I am more likely to create an inner atmosphere of unease, restlessness, and discomfort.

There are causes and consequences for my life in the world. If I smile and am genuinely friendly to others, that’s what I am more likely to receive in return.

And then there is the idea of consequences for future lives. I don’t know if this is accurate or not. (I only know what some people say about it but don’t have personal experiences to support it.)

What I do know is that this idea has been used – by some cultures, traditions, and teachers – to guide people to more kind behavior. And it has also been used to justify unjust social structures and control people and keep them “in their place”. (The Indian caste system.)

I also know that if we have many lives, and there is this form of inter-life karma, we all have (just about) infinite amounts of all kinds of karma. We are all in, more or less, the same boat. Whatever happens to ripen right now is just the tiniest piece of it.

What’s common for all these forms of karma is feedback. Karma is another word for feedback. It’s an opportunity to notice and learn. It’s an opportunity to invite in healing. And ultimately, karma leads to awakening.

About consequences, free from stress, and following the heart

The mind may have all sorts of stories of how it will be when there is more clarity.

One is that there will be no consequences of our actions, and that we can do what we want without repercussions.

This is one of the “dreams of the ego”.

The reality of it is much simpler and more ordinary, at least in my experience.

There are, of course, still consequences – of our actions, choices, emotions, thoughts etc. Consequences happen in an ordinary way.

We may not believe our thoughts about it, so the coarse or gross (dis)stress may not be there. (Or it’s at least not resisted in the same way.) This makes it much easier.

And yet, when we go against our inner guidance, our heart, our authenticity, is still doesn’t feel right.

In fact, the more clear we are, and the more we recognize all as love, the more painful it is to go against our guidance, our heart, and our authenticity.

In that sense, there is less freedom in clarity. Or, more accurately, there is still freedom to go against guidance, heart and authenticity, yet the consequences are more clear and painful to us. And yet, that’s a small – or actually no – price to pay for living from clarity and love.

I still get caught in fear and beliefs, and sometimes go against my guidance and heart. When that happens, it’s helpful to feel the pain of doing so.

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Ancestral vs karma

What’s surfacing here to be loved is largely – if not all – ancestral.

They are patterns passed on to me from my parents, other adults, and my culture.

They are patterns of delusion passed on through generations.

Now, they are here with an invitation for me to meet it with love, see through them, and feel what hasn’t been fully felt. They wish their own release, their own liberation.

And this ancestral stuff is really karma. Seen with the idea of time, everything has infinite causes stretching back to beginning of the universe and out to the extent of the universe.

Some of this karma, some chains of causality, are these ancestral patterns. Many of them are very useful and even invaluable. They help me to orient and function in the world.

And some of these ancestral chains are from delusion. They are from identification with words and images. They are from confused love. They are painful. And they are here in me, inviting me to be a loving presence for them, see through them, and feel what hasn’t been fully felt. They wish for their own release. They wish to align with reality. They wish to align with whatever love and clarity is here.

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I told a friend about something in my life the other day, and she said “it’s karma”.

What does the word mean for me now?

Karma – whatever ideas we have about it – is an idea. It’s a projection. An overlay of images and thoughts. It’s not inherent in the world or “out there” in the world. And the idea of a world is also an idea that’s right here.

Within the realm of ideas of images, karma can be said to be cause and effect. We have an image of something go before something else in time, and have another image saying one caused the other.

One basic image of how karma operates is beliefs. Mind takes an image or thought as true, and there is a perception as if it’s true, emotions come as if it’s true, and actions come as if it’s true.

Another basic image if karma is of infinite causes. Whatever happens, even the most simple thing, and even that which seems the most “personal” such as choices and intentions, has infinite causes. I can make a long list of what brought it about, and I can always find one more thing, and one more thing. The whole universe, the whole of existence – in it’s extent and history – is behind it.

The first view of karma – focusing on beliefs – can be quite helpful. And the second helps soften the idea that it is – or something is or can really be – personal.

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A few different ways I notice karma in my own life:

Immediate effect

When I take a thought as true, it’s painful, and it’s happening here and now. There is an immediate effect. For example, I have the belief that I need him to like me. I interpret, feel and live as if it’s true. I behave as I think he would like. And all of that is uncomfortable, painful, and feels inauthentic.

Beliefs directed at the outer and inner world

Any thought I hold as true will be directed towards others, myself and life at different times and in different situations. As long as a thought is taken as true, I will put it on anyone and anything that seems appropriate in the situation, including myself. I believe he is stupid, and inevitably see myself as stupid right then if I notice, or a bit later even in a quite obvious way.

Field of awareness

My world is happening within and as this field of awareness, my world of images. There is no (real, final) I or Other. As I behave towards the wider world, I behave towards me in an immediate sense.

Dreamworld of cause and effect

Any action has consequences in the world of cause of effect. I stub my toe and there is pain. I am friendly towards others, and they are friendly back.

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A few things about karma, aka cause and effect…

  • It is instant, happening here now. Said one way, I relate to all content of experience in a similar way, including this human self and the wider world. If I get caught up in reactiveness, a closed heart, a fixed view, then that is how I relate to my human self, those around me, the rest of the world, life, the universe, God and so on. And the same if I relate from receptivity and an open heart. The way I act towards others is a sign of how I habitually relate to myself. The karma is instant, in that sense.
  • Whenever there is an identification with a pattern, it is reinforced. The groove is deepened. A pattern is taken as I, fueled, lived from, and becomes more of a habit.
  • Patterns of an open heart and receptivity leads to happiness and a release from suffering. And patterns of reactivity, a closed heart and fixed view leads to suffering. This happens in many different ways. For instance, an open heart and receptive view tends to give a sense of connection, intimacy, recognition, empathy, joy in other’s happiness. And it also gives less sense of a need to protect any particular story or identity. Both tends to release suffering and open for a sense of quiet joy. It also makes it easier to release identification out of content in general, and notice what we are, which is a more complete release of suffering.
  • Karma shows up in my relationship with the wider world. How I treat the wider world determines, to some extent, how I am treated back. In my immediate relationships, how I treat others is how they tend to treat me. (The post card effect.) And as a part of larger social and ecological systems, the way I influence the health of these impacts me and those within my circle of care, including generations of offspring.
  • The story of karma is a teaching and practice tool. It is a guide for noticing the effects of our actions in the world. Take responsibility for our actions. Treat others the way we would like to be treated in their situation. (Golden rule.) And act from enlightened self-interest.
  • And if we look a little closer, we may find that everything has infinite causes and infinite effects. I may not find any individual or local “doer” here. Only infinite effects stretching back to beginning of time and out through the extent of space.

Trigger for this post: Reading the section on karma in “Buddhism for Dummies” which I thought left a few things out.


Another look at karma, and how it is and isn’t, and is personal and universal, belonging to the part and the whole.

As with any maps, models and stories, the story of karma is a practical tool only, a tool that helps our human self to orient and navigate in the world. A tool that can be more or less useful depending on what we want to use it for. There is no value or truth in it beyond that.

And we can say that karma is and isn’t.

It is, because there is, obviously, cause and effect in the conventional sense.

It isn’t, because there is only what is here now, the five sense fields and what appears in each one. Anything else comes from the inside of a story. Past, future, time, continuity, space, extent, causality, all that is only found on the inside of a story.

It is individual, because we can find, in a conventional sense, causality within the boundaries of this human self. We see how thoughts and decisions are followed by actions in the world, and so on. It is also individual as a practical ethical tool, inviting and helping the human self to live in a more ethical way and follow the golden rule more easily.

It is universal and of the whole, because everything has infinite causes and effects, reaching back to the beginning of the universe and out to its furthest reaches. What we see locally, including what appears as local causes and effects, are just the local effects of movements within the whole.

So karma, cause and effect, exists in a conventional and practical sense. If we look a little closer, we cannot find it in our immediate experience. It can only be found on the inside of a story.

It is individual, again in a practical and conventional sense. And it belongs to the whole of the world of form, in that everything happening locally has infinite causes and effects, and is a manifestation of the movements of the whole.

And we can find all of this here and now, in our own immediate experience. How is it true for me, here and now? What do I find when I look for myself?

Karma and reincarnation as teaching strategy

What do we know about life, death and what continues?

Well, we know for sure that this human self dies. It is gone. Never to come back. So if we take this human self, with its particular personality, to be “I”, then “I” will surely die and be gone forever, reincarnation or not.

At the same time, we see that the world of form is a seamless whole. Everything has infinite causes and infinite effects. The world of form is reorganizing itself in always new and different ways. There is no I with an Other within the world of form. Doing, but no (separate, individual) doer.

And if we look, we find that within all of this coming and going, all of this change, something does not come and go. The awareness it all happens within does not come and go. It is that which all forms happens within, to and as, including all time and space, all causality, and any sense of an I with an Other. This awareness is inherently free from all of it, so is also free to allow the appearance of it all. This is what we really are, awakeness inherently free from any of its content, free from any I with an Other, yet allowing the appearance of it all in its fluid richness.

So in this context, personal karma does not have much meaning, nor does reincarnation if we think of an “I” that is reincarnated.

There is no “personal” karma because everything has infinite causes and infinite effects. Every single little thing this human self does has causes that stretch back to the beginning of time and out to the extent of the universe. It is the karma of the world of form as a whole and does not belong to any individual entity within this world of form.

And there is no reincarnation of a separate “I” either, because it doesn’t exist. It only appears when we filter the world through a sense of I and Other, which all comes from a thought, which all happens within, to and as awakeness itself.

At most, there may be a rebirth of this alive presence with its many flavors of infinite love, wisdom, luminosity, nurturing darkness, and somehow personal and impersonal at the same time. This alive presence at the soul level, which may come in through certain soul level practices such as prayer, and which we can place our sense of “I” on if we want. But this too is within content of awareness, this too comes and goes, this too is inherently free from any I with an Other. So even if there is some form of rebirth here, it is free from a rebirth of any “I”.

So why does Buddhism, and some other traditions, emphasize personal karma and reincarnation? They are not stupid, they too must have discovered this either in their own immediate experience or at least rationally, so why do they still – sometimes – emphasize it?

To me, it seems to be a teaching strategy. A teaching aimed at a particular, introductory, level.

It is far too easy to be caught up in the words about these things… ground, awakeness, emptiness, no I with an Other. As soon as we start believing the thoughts about these things, or anything else, it quickly gets really weird.

So then it is better to encourage people to continue to believe in a separate self, with individual karma and the prospect of being reborn, because that at least invites in some personal responsibility, some measure of ethical living, the practice of thinking of the longer term and far reaching consequences of ones actions.

(It easily becomes a fear based motivation, which Buddhism traditionally is not foreign to, so we may agree or disagree with that particular approach.)

It aligns our sense of a separate I, with a conscious view of a separate I, which anyway is more honest.

If we are going to believe in thoughts, as we do until there is a shift into awakeness awakening to itself, we may as well believe in these thoughts. They do at least have some practical everyday value.

And if we, in addition to this, practice, we may eventually come to see through it all. We may discover that there is really no I with an Other. That the world of form is a seamless whole, where the local manifestations of the movements of the whole appears as under the influence of infinite causes and infinite effects. That what we really are is this awakeness within, to and as the world of form appears, inherently and already absent of any I with an Other.

And that there is no, and never was any, personal karma. No reincarnation of any I. No substance to those teachings.

Yet a great deal of appreciation for them anyway, as practical guides for a certain phase of the path.

Karma and infinite causes

Karma, as anything else, can be filtered through a sense of a separate self, or an absence of identification with stories, and so also a separate self.

When filtered through an unquestioned sense of separate self, it becomes what we see in popular culture: a focus on “my” or individual karma, or at most a group level karma (nations, humanity).

As usual, we can get a fuller picture if we include both the relative (the forms aspect overlaid with stories and boundaries) and the absolute (void, and form as awake void).

In the form aspect, we see that anything happening locally has infinite effects, so karma is really the karma of the whole, or rather, the processes, patterns and movements of the fluid seamless whole of form. Looking at it from the level of the holarchy as a whole, karma is the karma of the holarchy itself.

At the same time, karma is personal or individual in a very limited sense. We can discern local causes and effects related to the individual human self: a thought (appears to) trigger an action, patterns of thoughts and beliefs trigger patterns of actions, he smiles and someone smiles back, she learns something which changes how she lives his life, he gains an insight into a belief so the belief falls away and with it certain mind-body patterns, and so on.

(Although this too is really the karma of the whole, the local expressions of the movement of the whole, the local effects of patterns within the whole of the world of form.)

From the “view” of void, or rather the absence of views here (which allows any views, although now with an absence of beliefs in them), all form just happens. It is the awake void as form, happening on its own. Karma – causes and effects – only comes from an overlay of stories.

And if we use that overlay (which is another form aspect of void, happening on its own), we see that karma is the karma of the fluid seamless whole of form, and also that it can appear as the karma of an individual.

We may also see that using the stories of it as individual can be helpful, in a limited way, in terms of motivation for change and practice. But, if taken as real, solid, absolute and final, it  can hold that belief in a separate self in place, making it more difficult to see it as a belief and discover what is on the other side of it.

Karma & Beliefs *

Karma refers to cause and effect, as it shows up in our daily lives in many different ways.

Innocent conditioning

Generally, it can be seen as ordinary and innocent conditioning, the habitual patterns and responses, of this human self. There are innumerable causes of this conditioning, reaching into the full past and extent of this universe, and the form of the conditioning is always new and different as well.

This conditioning is inherent in the world of form. It is the movements within this seamless whole, appearing as cause and effect. It is what keeps us, and any being, alive. Nothing in the world of form, including our human selves, can function without conditioning. A human self cannot “escape” conditioning either, no more than a wave can escape an ocean. And it is not needed.

Karma from beliefs

One way karma shows up is any time there is a belief in a thought.

A thought arises as an innocent question. It is attached to, believed in, made into something that appears real and substantial. And through being attached to, it has real consequences in our lives.

I believe I am an object in the world, and get caught up in – and act from – likes and dislikes, hopes and fears. I believe the world is a dangerous place, and experience fear. I believe I am a man, and exclude feminine qualities. I believe people should be considerate, and cut down in my mind anyone I see as not considerate.

Existential terror as karma

When the Buddhist psychotherapist told my friend that her undercurrent of terror is karma, it may have been accurate in a certain way.

There is a belief in the thought I, and in subsequent thoughts such as something terrible will happen, and this necessarily leads to an undercurrent of terror. It can appear mild and in the background and go unnoticed for a while, and it can come more to the foreground in other situations.

There is a simple cause – a belief in a thought, and the effect – in this case a current of terror.

Karma falls away

And there may not be any need to make up stories about what created this in the past. Those are only stories. Instead, we can just to notice these beliefs and examine them. We can more clearly see their nature as ephemeral, their effects on our lives, who or what we would be without them, and that the reverse statements are as true as the original one.

Seeing through the beliefs, they fall away. And with them, their effects.

Karma falls away.

Karma from beliefs falls away, the other ones stay

At least this one particular type of karma falls away, the one coming from beliefs in thoughts. The one creating the whole drama of our human existence, the suffering, the dis-ease.

The other forms of karma, the innocent conditioning, is fine. It can and will stay. It is what allows this human self to continue, survive and function in the world of phenomena.

Where there used to be an attachment to a thought, leading to getting caught in this conditioning and a sense of drama and struggle, there is now an absence of attachment to the thought, and the same conditioning now functioning within a sense of ease.

Infinite Causes

One of the many ways to explore selflessness is through inquiry into causes. Take any activity in your daily life, and explore the many contributing causes to that activity.

For any activity, I can find infinite contributing causes. There is always one more, and one more.

I brushed my teeth this morning, and the tip of the iceberg of the contributing causes to that simple activity is…

  • I have teeth
  • I have a tooth brush
  • I have an arm to brush with
  • I have time to brush
  • I had a thought of brushing teeth
  • I had the intention of brushing teeth
  • There is an awareness within which all this unfolds
  • My parents and my school encouraged me to brush my teeth, establishing a habit for me
  • Someone invented the toothbrush
  • Someone manufactured this toothbrush
  • Innumerable people was part of that manufacturing, indirecty or directly, going back innumerable generations
  • I am alive
  • I am a human being
  • I have eaten food my whole life to stay alive for this brushing
  • Innumerable beings brought this food to me, directly and indirectly
  • I have not died yet, from the innumerable things that could have made me die before this moment
  • Innumerable unbroken generations of beings, humans and pre-human, allowed me to exist so I could brush my teeth this morning
  • This planet and solar system was formed from a number of supernovas
  • The whole universe has evolved as a seamless system, allowing this planet, humanity, our culture, and me to exist

And so on… I see that the universe as a whole contributed to this simple action. There is not really much room for any separate doer. It seems far more true that the act of brushing my teeth was the activity of the whole of the universe, of the whole of Existence. I cannot find any separate I here acting as a doer. I as a separate doer seems to be just a story added to what is.