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Everyone has heard of karma and rebirth these days. But when Karma is a perfume and Rebirth is a skin care brand, it’s not always clear what the concepts actually refer to. This month, we’re going to be reflecting on these two important but often misunderstood Buddhist doctrines. We’ll be using Nagapriya’s Exploring Karma & Rebirth as our guide, along with articles written by some of our other authors, including Vessantara, Dhivan Thomas Jones and Bodhipaksa.

The word ‘karma’ is usually used to express the idea that ‘you get what’s coming to you’, that ‘you reap what you sow’. When I type ‘karma’ into my search engine, I get the following definition: ‘Karma is the law of moral causation.’ However, Nagapriya’s discussion on karma begins with the statement that this is exactly what karma isn’t:

Karma is not a general law of causation […] From a Buddhist point of view, such a rendering is not only inaccurate but misleading.

When I interviewed Nagapriya on the subject, he explained that he was ‘concerned about this idea of karma becoming almost like a mystical law that protects some and punishes others. I think that a lot of people understand karma almost transactionally – you do something and then there’s this pay off – but actually, to my mind, it loses its real power when understood in this way.’

The key premise behind Nagapriya’s book is that if the concept of karma is to be of enduring value, it must continue to serve the overriding aim of Buddhism, which is spiritual awakening. The word karma should therefore be understood and used in a way that draws attention to the importance of the underlying ethical intentions behind our actions, and how they shape the people we become: ‘How I act changes the kind of person I am. So if, for instance, I consistently act out of a selfish motive, I will become a selfish person; I will build up a habit in that direction.’

Karma, then, is about being mindful of the intentions behind our actions on the basis of the understanding that ‘we bear a responsibility to our future self and to other human beings through what we do. We have the power to transform the world for good or ill. It is through the compassionate exercise of this power that we fulfil our responsibility to life and transcend the confines of our ordinary mind.’

Recently, Dhivan Thomas Jones (author of This Being, That Becomes) has also written a very useful article on karma. Entitled ‘Two Meanings of Karma’, it suggests that the word has two quite distinct meanings, which can be summed up as ‘universal karma’ and ‘psychological karma’. Whilst a psychological understanding of karma is ‘practical and empirical’, a universal interpretation is ‘religious and a matter of metaphysical speculation’. He argues that ‘Western Buddhists are generally more inclined to think of the law of karma in the psychological sense’, and that the distinction between psychological and universal meanings of karma is therefore ‘important for clarifying what is distinctive about western Buddhism’.

Do you agree with Nagapriya and Dhivan? Share your thoughts on our blog! And look out for our discussion on rebirth later this month.

You can find out more about Nagapriya’s Karma & Rebirth on our website, where you can also read my interview with Nagapriya about his book.