How karma works in Buddhism: I won the fight, but..

People often ask me how karma works. What is the connection between cause and effect? How is it that our actions come back at us? In an earlier article I summarised karma and examined how it works to our benefit in good actions, and how karma damages us when our actions are bad. We also looked at the general principles of karma.

But here I will flesh out one karma and look at its many aspects, in particular how cause connects with effect. The example is a case of negative karma and so we will also explain how meditation and mindfulness act to counter bad karma.

For our purposes here, let’s examine a violent action. We will explore how karma functions with that.

How karma works in creating the cause

I walked into a room I find beautiful. The carpet is soft underfoot and a nice neutral colour. The chairs and couches are inviting and comfortable, the colour palette subtle and warm. Impressionist paintings add a delightful splash of colour. The room is most pleasant to my eye. I am relaxed and at ease here. Until.

Someone walks into the room. I look up and see it is Diablo, my worst enemy. Diablo has had it in for me a long time. But until now I have avoided him. The glint in his eyes tells me he is ready to unleash. He rushes me and it begins.

I am confronted by an enemy attacking me. It is an unprovoked attack, and he has gone from verbal abuse to violence in an instant. He is an annoying person at the best of times, but this time his unprovoked attack has stirred something primal. He has made me angry. Even though I have no training in fighting my anger makes me feel I can prevail. I defend his blows and then strike back myself. We crash about the room breaking things and bouncing off others. The battle rages with verbal abuse from both sides. Then I smash his nose with a lucky blow and the huge amount of blood that flows gives us both pause, and the fight is over.

My enemy leaves. His blood stains the carpet. A broken chair and two shattered vases remain. A once attractive room looks horrible, and it is difficult to find a path between the blood and glass to leave.

How karma shapes our inner world

A contrast I want to point out is between the way I perceived the room before Diablo entered to how I perceived it while he was present.

While he was in the room I was angry, in a boiling rage. In that rage and in the grip of the fight I was not aware of the beautiful impressionist paintings. Nor was I aware of how soft the carpet was. Nor the delightful palette of colours in the room. I perceived a violent and dangerous place, an ugly environment. It was an environment inhabited by a fearful monster intent on my destruction. I was intent on his destruction. It was a battle environment. I took blows, and I gave blows. My anger covered over my underlying fear that the monster might destroy me. It felt life or death.

With Diablo present, the room was not a beautiful place. It was an ugly, dangerous and fearful place. There is no redeeming feature to my enemy. He was the monster I must overcome. I was in a place of extreme struggle with my mind on fire with anger. Sure, I knew the damage done, but also knew of the damage I was doing to him. I absorbed my pain and sensed his. Further, I revelled in his pain.

My perception of the environment was in complete contrast to how I first knew it. While relaxed and at ease, my awareness was far more expansive and able to appreciate the beauty in the room. I could enjoy its qualities and aesthetic appeal. Being in such a room was enjoyable.

How anger affects your mind

Compare my experience while relaxed and with an expansive awareness to my experience while in the grip of anger. Anger reduces the expansiveness to a narrow focus of struggle. Unaware of the room at all, I am lost in my hatred of Diablo. Appreciation has changed to the intent to harm. Enjoyment gave way to pain. My perception of qualities changes to perceiving only the faults in my enemy.

So anger and the violent actions that proceed from anger, produce a mental environment that is violent and harsh. Your personal experience is painful, threatening, fearful and harmful. That mental environment embraces both the harm done and the harm I am doing to the other. I know his pain and am immersed in the pain of my anger and the fire of my rage.

The karmic problem that anger and violence cause

This environment, as I experienced it, becomes a part of me. My violence and its destructive effect on Diablo are all part of me now. This is one of the many events that make me the person I have become. So now my consciousness holds this fight and violence. I hold the experience of my enemy with his broken nose.

This, including having a broken nose, is present in my consciousness. It will remain latent there as a seed until finding the circumstances for its expression. This will be circumstances in which someone breaks my nose, a cycle of karma returning. The dangerous and fearful fight environment is also present in my consciousness. It too will one day gain external expression. I may find myself in a war zone that reflects the violence I hold inside me.

So what we hold within us from all our previous actions will one day meet the circumstances for its expression. The good within will bring happiness and joy, good conditions and good circumstances. In contrast, the bad within us will bring experiences of suffering. We will experience unhappiness and pain when we meet the circumstances for that.

How karma works: primary and secondary causes

So the process of karma is that our actions create the seed of a similar result returning to us. This seed, the outcome of our actions, or karma, is the primary cause for the future result. The secondary causes for that result, the conditions, are the other people and circumstances we meet and interact with. They will take the aspect of the karmic result.

So a karmic seed of violence will attract us to dangerous circumstances facing attack. In contrast, a karmic seed of generosity will attract us to the circumstances where we receive much.

Everything we experience comes out of the primary causes of the karma we have created. Good or bad, we make it all. The mental environment that our anger creates is a bad place. It is a hard, restricted, dangerous, threatening and painful place to be. It all depends on karma. Karma, our actions or how we behave, creates who we are and what we experience in life.

By comparison, our generosity will in future bring us to a land of plenty.

Our karma, the actions we have done in the past create the environments we experience through our lives.

In fact, whatever we do to others we do to ourselves on time delay.

Everything counts

To understand how karma works, we must see how pervasive karma, or action, is. It is not just violent physical actions which change our mental environment. In the same room, we may become caught up in an angry argument with someone. In the heat of an argument, when we are both angry, we lose our awareness of the pleasant aspects of the surrounding environment. Again we have a sense of narrowing of the mind, a hardness, a harshness in the struggle of the argument. Our mental environment is unpleasant even though the physical environment is very pleasant.

We could sit in the same pleasant room surrounded by impressionist paintings and mulling over a perceived hurt. Once again, we are angry at the person who hurt us and see the circumstances of his insult. We think of a million things we could have said to hurt him back. Again we lose the expansive sense of the environment we occupy. Our mental environment is once again one of struggle, of anger, and like that of the verbal argument.

Every time we create karmic causes they will bring results that resemble the mental environment we have created. Those karmic causes may be purely mental, just our hateful thought processes. Our speech creates bad karma when we abuse or criticise. Further, our own version of a Diablo encounter will create bad karma physically.

But it is not just in the extreme case of a Diablo encounter. Some fly into a rage just discovering that their neighbour packed their rubbish in your rubbish bin. Or the car in front was pushing in. Maybe the service was very slow at the shop.

How will meditation and mindfulness help with karma?

In the same way that anger constricts the mind, narrows it, heats it and makes it hard, meditation opposes this. Meditation expands awareness, it opens the mind. It cools anger’s agitation and that of other non-virtues. It softens the mind toward compassion.

Mindfulness through its role in meditation helps produce these effects. Further, mindfulness helps to keep our mindset stable and calm. That stability and calmness gives us the means to steady anger’s agitation.

So conduct an experiment for yourself. Meditate until your mind calms itself and becomes clear.  Note the details of your mental environment, your first person experience. Notice how relaxed and expansive your awareness is and how open to experience.

Then visualise yourself in the fight sequence as described. Imagine how your mental environment transforms and see the changes. What I described earlier will be close.

In our meditation classes we learn many ways to meditate on karma and how it works. The more we practise these meditations, the clearer we become about the process of causality, the law of cause and effect. The aim of Buddhist meditation is to free us completely and forever from the grip of karma.

Why people do this to themselves?

When we see how we create ourselves through karma of body, speech and mind, we ask this question. Why would anybody want what anger brings? Why do that to myself again? The mental environment of anger with its pain, has nothing to recommend at all. It is like your mind is on fire, consumed by manic obsessiveness and struggle. Fear and paranoia overwhelm us. When we see anger, we will forever want to avoid it.

What meditation and mindfulness give us is the means to rid ourselves of anger forever. They give us the means to free ourselves from previous negative karma and the way to produce happiness.

Once we understand the workings of karma, we will want to avoid creating bad karma. We will find ways of dealing with the Diablos of the world without getting angry. The neighbours rubbish will not spoil our day. Driving will be a lot more relaxed and the wait for service at the shop a welcome respite and time to meditate.

Don’t let karma make you its victim. Use karma to create the life you want, to become the happy and balanced person you would like to be.