Karma: Empowering Compassionate Action


As our human family faces multiple challenges resulting from an accumulation of our past collective actions, it is a good time to reflect on how we might make our current actions contribute to a more wholesome direction in the future. As an extension of the series on the 12 Links of Interdependent Origination, we studied (in a past Sukhasiddhi Sundays series) the law of karma and the role intention plays in its unfolding. While knowing the full extent of the workings of karma is identified by the Buddha as an imponderable, there is much that we can understand that will allow us to take an active role in shaping our future while holding our present circumstances with compassion.

Karma is the law of cause and effect as it relates to thoughts, words, and actions. For every action we take, inevitably there is a result that will arise at an unknown time. Our experiences are determined and shaped by previously planted karmic seeds. Every time we engage in an action of body, speech, or mind, karmic seeds are planted in our storehouse consciousness. This consciousness flows in a stable way from one lifetime to the next. When the time has come for karma to ripen, the results of previous karmic actions arise and shape our experience on both micro and macro levels.

The network of causes and conditions that shape our experience is infinitely complex. In addition to our personal karma, our lives are also shaped by collective karma. Some of these karmic seeds ripen instantly while others can take lifetimes to manifest. To have a clear understanding of the full extent of karma is beyond the capacity of the intellect of an ordinary being. The Buddha taught it to be one of the four imponderables.

That said, having an understanding about how we create karma and how it operates can allow us to gain perspective during both joyful and challenging times. It provides a framework for understanding our circumstances and invites us to hold those challenges with lovingkindness and compassion. It also allows us to hold the joys with appreciation and use them as inspiration for engaging in beneficial activity.

The inevitability of karma can sometimes feel disheartening and it’s easy to feel defeated if we believe that everything is fait accompli. The gift of understanding how karma works is that we can reflect on the causes and conditions that brought about current circumstances and learn how we can shape the future we’d like by engaging in beneficial actions now that will bring about a beneficial result in times to come. In addition, there are ways we can purify karma that has already accrued, and we will explored this in a Sukhasiddhi Sunday series using the practices of Chenrezig and tonglen.

The practice of Chenrezig is a means of awakening to our innate compassion for ourselves and all beings. He is also a central part of the tonglen practice that we do at Sukhasiddhi Foundation. This special tonglen practice comes from the female yogini, Niguma, who is the source for many of the Shangpa Kagyu practices. This exquisite practice is a profound means of holding all of life’s suffering in loving kindness and compassion while transforming it and our relationship with it by illuminating our suffering from the inside out with wisdom and compassion.

—Lama Döndrup