A friend recently asked me what initially attracted me to Buddhism, and I explained that it was the straightforward and experiential nature of the core teachings, free of dogma and metaphysical mysticism. I told her that I have always thought of Buddhism as a practical psychology rather than a religion. Then she asked the question I was secretly dreading: “What about karma?” Writing anything about karma, whose workings were considered by the Buddha to be one of the Four Imponderables, is a daunting undertaking, especially for someone like me who’s not exactly an avid reader of the Pali canon. Still, it’s a teaching that’s too widely known and too central to the Buddha’s worldview to be ignored, and I think the basic idea is much less abstruse than it might at first appear.
When I learned about Hinduism and Buddhism in high school and college, I thought of karma as the ancient Indians’ answer to an age old question: Why do bad things happen to good people? And although there are certainly plenty of Buddhists who take a mechanistic view of karma, it is my understanding that the Buddha did not claim that everything that happens to us is due to karma. In fact, karma is just one of five natural laws that govern the workings of our universe. Though everything that arises is inextricably interrelated, different processes unfold according to their own nature. An earthquake arises due to conditions in the physical world; it is not the universe’s way of punishing the living beings that happen to be affected by it.
Well, I’ll leave these metaphysical questions to the scholars and philosophers. My point in writing this post is that karma is a lot simpler and more practical than all that.