Finally I arrive to the discussion of Karma. Concepts of karma and Samsara are very closely related and it is hard to mention one of them without touching the other. Karma seems to be a direct imprint of Samsara into the person’s life. It represents cycle of cause and effect present in the world of Samsara. The word Karma is often translated as “action”. Whilst Samsara relates to the world of social constructions Karma seems to represent our position within that world.
Buddhism and Hinduism connect the “wheel of karma” and cycle of rebirth as two aspects of the same process. The most popular understanding of karma is that it is some sort of a “load” we are born with and we need to work with it through our life time. If we manage to sort it out we can eventually free from its influence and reach enlightenment. If we mess up we produce even more Karma and our entanglement in Samsara gets deeper. Just like Samsara is not only built of suffering Karma is not only built of the bad stuff even though it is often described in in terms of difficulties we face through our life time.
Common way of understanding karma in western culture is based in Christian morality and its punishment for sins. I heard people say things like “don’t do that or karma will get you”. It’s as though the universe was watching them and sending certain happenings down their way as a punishment. I don’t believe that this type of reasoning has anything to do with actual meaning of Karma. Karma in Buddhism is a blind force. It’s a simple cause and effect thing like Newtonian physics. Concepts of Maya and Samsara refer to the qualities of the human mind. In a similar way Karma is not concerned with any supernatural forces that rule our lives. Karma is the direct impact of our actions on our surrounding environment.* It is true that the outside circumstances have an impact on our lives but they do not determine our actions (remember that karma=action). What determines our actions is our reaction and interpretation of these circumstances. These are based on our beliefs about the world and our place in it.
In fact it is our beliefs, not the outside circumstances that severely limit our capability to achieve happiness. Only thing that makes a real difference to our perceived quality of life is our reaction to the unpredictable or undesired events. Two people faced by the same tragedy may react totally differently. Our attitude towards life and its twists is the only thing in the world we can truly change. Our minds is the only thing we can ever control. As someone said somewhere “life is not about waiting for the storm to pass, life is about learning how to dance in the rain”.
*Obviously our lives are tangled up with the lives of others. We may not see or experience direct effects of our own actions. Good example of this is destruction of natural environment. It’s the future generations that suffer for this, not the people who performed the original damage. I think that this is why Buddhism teaches about Karma in the context of the reincarnation cycle. The very moment you are born some type of Karma affects your life- even the name you were given, place of your birth etc. Some aspects of your future are already predetermined for you from the day one.