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Understanding Karma From Several Different Viewpoints

Leonard Kelley holds a bachelor's in physics with a minor in mathematics. He loves the academic world and strives to constantly explore it.


Wondering about rebirth?

Rebirth is a result of “unsatisfied desire” which stems from ignorance we have in our lives and strangely enough it is happening right now at every moment, even after death. The actual source of the rebirth comes from the “storehouse consciousness,” something that was very tricky for me to truly understand as I tried to think of it as a physical construct (some schools of Buddhism do subscribe to such an interpretation).

This storehouse consciousness is considered the most primal source of yourself, but something more than that. It's where all your karmic actions are recorded, where things beyond your subconsciousness dwell. Really, it’s a mental record of your historical behavior as driven by your past actions as well as potential future ones that you choose.

For a Buddhist, it is this storehouse consciousness that transfers on in the process of rebirth (which is why it happens moment-to-moment, for the thing that is physically you – the atoms – is constantly updating, and yet some primal piece – your mind – carries on). Rebirth is a physical process and a mental one, reflecting the constant changes of the Universe (Peto).

Seeing the illusion

Seeing the illusion

Seeing the Illusion

In fact, rebirth is a central reason why what you think of as your core identity is an illusion. There isn’t anything about you that is static, for everything is constantly changing. By building up this notion of a permanent self, you create illusions about the world that lead to your suffering as you think of yourself as separate from the world.

The actual lack of a permanent self is known as impermanence and the goal of non-identifying with this false self is known as the nonself. Think about it as the constant change of the universe and how that frees you to not be chained to a false self. We have chances to change our outlook on life and our karma can help us on that path. Everything in life changes, after all (Peto, Jones).

But then that implies that nothing transfers on beyond your death because everything is impermanent. Indeed, that is one of the challenges Buddhism faces when being introduced to western audiences. Most major religions imply the notion of a soul or that core aspect that transcends.

Remember that storehouse consciousness? That is the primal source of you because you are only the result of past events and therefore can use those thoughts to influence future ones too. That’s the ultimate rebirth because it goes on as people interact with the world. So while questions of the afterlife may plague you, consider the afterlife you lead in this world as driven by your karma (Peto).

Buddhism acknowledges that the physical matter of our body stops functioning, but that doesn’t mean the energy behind it stops. Our karma impacts the future and is a legacy of our existence. Maybe we should focus instead on the cycle of life and death. That which is born has to cease to exist, but something had to die for something new to be born. Elements get cycled out. Heck, you and I were once a star that went supernova. The universe cycles on and on in its processes, so what is truly dead then but instead in a state of constant rebirth (Ibid)?

This is a chance to see the truth revealed rather than the lie lived. Material possessions and petty arguments lose their power in such a scheme, and instead, it gives you perspective on what is important in life. Because we are all interconnected, no one is truly in isolation – we all have choices impacting us and we impact them. I

Instead, the thing that makes up you is a temporary combination of a physical and mental state, and thankfully is always updating depending on what you have done and what others have done onto you whether it was by design or by accident (Peto, Jones).

Metaphors as Truth

So the storehouse consciousness is the record of all your karmic actions. Not literally a storage realm, as I understand it, but more of an impermanent landscape of actions influencing events. The major ways your karma is changed is by actions, thoughts, and words. And yes, there is good and bad karma.

Generally, good karma is seen as outward focused while bad karma is inwardly driven. But Buddhist metaphor extends karma as a seed planted in the storehouse consciousness. It will lie dormant unless watered and given the ability to grow, making its impact known at certain times where you are cashing in your karmic points, as it were. This is a bit of a hard sell for me because my actions may not impact me directly, which is what people associate the word karma with. This is where different schools of Buddhism differ as to the literal meaning or the metaphoric one, so your mileage may vary (Peto, Jones).

How much science is there to karma?

How much science is there to karma?

Lingering Thoughts

Science is finding that the ideals of karma may actually have a neurological basis. A karma-based approach to life mimics the ideas of construct activation, or that our past approaches to life do indeed impact how we interact with the world. If you get stung by a bee, you will be leerier of them in the future. Events become contextualized and inform us how to interact with our environment.

Gee, that is a lot like the storehouse consciousness of Buddhism! Both social cognitive theory and Buddhism advocate for many ways to look at the world rather than restrict ourselves to a singular one. If we mislabel events and things, we are droving ourselves to suffering because we are not seeing, or acknowledging, the world for as it is (The Leading Edge).

There will be those that say karma is nonsense, that it’s just wishful thinking without any evidence backing up its claims. While it is true that no major scientific study has been done to verify a universal law of karma, that doesn’t mean a personal one is false either. You cannot expect that bad people will be punished but you can proceed in life with the understanding that positive actions tend to grow in the right environment. Life has inherent randomness to it and some things happen just…because.

You get to choose if you view the situation as bad or good, but try for an impartial stance. Do the best you can and enjoy when someone does the same to you. I feel this is at the heart of karma: We shouldn’t expect good behavior to be rewarded or bad behavior to be punished but we should instill in ourselves the idea of good being favorable to do and bad being something to avoid. (Thagard, Bocanengra).

In fact, wouldn’t it be better that we would want the bad person to improve themselves rather than expect something bad to happen to them? After all, what if we think someone did something wrong but it was us that were mistaken. Karma could be mistakenly applied here from our context. We should hope that people strive to improve themselves, not go down a path of terrible things. I don’t know about you, but that just seems like bad karma...on me.

Works Cited

Bocanengra, Josh. “Why Karma Doesn’t Exist.” Medium, 12 Apr. 2014. Web. 09 Feb. 2021.

Jones, Dhivan Thomas. “Two Meanings of Karma.” Western Buddhist Review. 08 Feb. 2014. Web. 09 Feb. 2021.

Peto, Alan. “Reincarnation and Buddhism: Here We Go Again.” Alan Peto, 07 Jul. 2013. Web. 30 Sept. 2020.

Thagard, Dr. Paul. “Karma – What Goes Around Comes Around?” Sussex Publishers LLC, 11 Jul. 2013. Web. 09 Feb. 2021.

The Leading Edge. “The Science of Karma.” 23 Aug. 2017. Web. 09 Feb. 2021.

© 2021 Leonard Kelley