Basics, Buddhism, Karma, Zen Buddhism

Understanding Karma: Definition and Meaning

Understanding karma is essential for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of Buddhism and the universe’s interconnectedness. 

Karma, a concept that originated in ancient Indian philosophy, refers to the idea that every action we take has consequences that affect us in our lives and future lives. 

Examining our actions and understanding Karma can help us take responsibility for the energy we put into the world and cultivate a more positive and intentional way of living.

In this article, I will discuss the basics of Karma, its origins, and how it can impact our lives. Whether you’re a Buddhism, a spiritual seeker, or simply curious about the concept, read on to better understand Karma and its significance.

What is Karma in Buddhism?

Karma means “action”, a term used in Buddhism to describe the law of cause and effect. It refers to the idea that our actions, thoughts, and words create a ripple effect that influences our future experiences. In other words, the energy we put into the world comes back to us somehow, either in this lifetime or future.

According to Buddhist teachings, Karma is not a punishment or a reward but a natural consequence of our choices. Positive actions create favorable Karma, while negative actions create unfavorable Karma. This means that if we act with kindness, compassion, and generosity, we will create positive Karma that will bring us happiness and good fortune in the future. Conversely, let’s act with anger, greed, and ignorance. We will create negative Karma that will bring us suffering and misfortune.

One of the unique aspects of Karma in Buddhism is that it extends beyond this lifetime. Buddhist teachings suggest that Karma follows “us” (although “us” doesn’t really and is an archetype created by the 5 aggregates or skandhas) from lifetime to lifetime and that our current circumstances are the result of our past actions. This means that if we want to improve our future experiences, we need to be mindful of our thoughts, words, and actions in the present moment.

How does Karma Works?

Karma is based on the idea that everything we do, think, or say leaves a trace of energy or imprint on our consciousness, influencing our future experiences.

You could compare Karma to a gigantic cosmic mirror that reflects back to us everything that we send out. The law of Karma operates on the principle of cause and effect, which means that our actions, thoughts, and words create energy that influences our future experiences.

The mirror analogy is valuable because it implies that we are responsible for what we see in our lives. Just like a mirror reflects our physical appearance, Karma reflects our inner state, which includes our intentions, motivations, and mental habits.

Just as a mirror reflects everything in front of it, Karma demonstrates the impact of our actions on ourselves and others. Therefore, what we send out into the world comes back to us, directly or indirectly, through the web of interdependence that connects us all.

Karma is not a supernatural force but a natural law that operates on a cause-and-effect principle and generates consequences, which we’ll eventually experience in our lives or future lives.

It’s important to note that Karma doesn’t work linearly and is not a reward or punishment system. Instead, it’s more like a complex web of interdependent causes and effects that shape our lives. We may experience the consequences of our past actions in unexpected ways, and sometimes the effects of our current actions manifest only in the distant future.

Importance of Intention and Action in Karma

In Buddhism, Karma is not just about actions but also about intention. This means that the quality of our actions and their consequences depend on our motivation and mindset when performing them.

For instance, if we perform a good deed with the intention of gaining fame or recognition, our Karma will be different than if we perform the same deed with a pure intention to help others. The former generates negative Karma, while the latter generates positive Karma.

Therefore, it’s important to cultivate positive intentions and mental states, such as kindness, compassion, and generosity, when performing actions. This generates positive Karma and helps us develop positive habits and attitudes contribute to our overall well-being.

However, more is needed to have good intentions by taking action. Action is also essential to Karma, as it creates the necessary energy to produce results. Therefore, acting on our positive intentions and generating positive energy through actions is important.

Different Types of Karma

In Buddhism, there are three types of Karma: individual, collective, and ancestral. Every kind of Karma influences our present experiences and shapes our future.

  • Individual Karma: Individual Karma refers to the Karma we create through actions, thoughts, and words. It’s the most common type of Karma that people talk about, and it’s based on the principle of cause and effect. The quality of our actions, thoughts, and words determines the quality of our Karma and the experiences that we’ll have in the future.
  • Collective Karma: Collective Karma refers to the Karma we create as a group or society. It’s based on the idea that our actions, thoughts, and words impact ourselves and those around us. Therefore, a group’s collective Karma is influenced by its members’ combined Karma. The Karma of countries fits into this category.
  • Ancestral Karma: Ancestral Karma refers to the Karma inherited from our ancestors, which can influence our present experiences and future Karma. It’s based on the idea that our ancestors’ actions, thoughts, and words can imprint on our consciousness and affect our lives.

Understanding the different types of Karma can help us to take responsibility for our actions and their impact on ourselves and others. 

Karma in Everyday Life

In Buddhism, every action and thought we have daily generates Karma. This means that even small actions or thoughts, such as holding the door open for someone or having an unkind thought towards someone, can significantly impact our Karma and the experiences we have in the future. 

For simplicity, I use the words good/positive and bad/negative when discussing Karma. In Buddhism, we usually don’t use such terms because they are subjective. Instead, based on the quality of our actions, thoughts, and intentions, there is Karma that generates happiness and Karma that generates suffering. 

Positive Karma

Positive Karma is generated by actions, thoughts, and intentions rooted in kindness, compassion, generosity, and other positive qualities. 

Engaging in positive actions creates positive energy contributing to our well-being and happiness. This positive energy can also have a ripple effect, influencing the Karma of those around us and creating a more harmonious world. 

Therefore, it’s important to cultivate positive qualities and engage in positive actions, even if they may seem small or insignificant. Doing so can generate positive Karma and create a more peaceful and compassionate world for ourselves and others.

Examples of Positive Karma:

  • Volunteering at a local charity: Helping others without expecting anything in return is a great way to generate positive Karma.
  • Donating money to a good cause: Giving money to a charity or organization that helps those in need can also create positive Karma.
  • Helping a neighbor in need: Providing assistance to someone who is struggling can create positive energy and a sense of community.
  • Forgiving someone who has wronged you: Letting go of anger and resentment towards others can help to generate positive Karma.
  • Engaging in meditation or mindfulness practices: Taking time to cultivate positive thoughts and intentions can create positive energy and help to reduce negative Karma.

Negative Karma

Negative Karma is generated by actions, thoughts, and intentions rooted in harmful qualities such as anger, greed, and ignorance. When we engage in negative actions, we create negative energy contributing to our overall suffering and unhappiness. 

This negative energy also has a ripple effect, influencing the Karma of those around us and creating disharmony in the world. Therefore, it’s important to be mindful of our actions and intentions and avoid engaging in harmful behavior. 

By cultivating positive qualities and engaging in positive actions, we can minimize the impact of negative Karma and create a more peaceful and compassionate world for ourselves and others.

Here are some examples of Karma in action, both positive and negative, along with descriptions:

Examples of Negative Karma:

  • Cheating on a test: Dishonest behavior can create negative energy and generate negative Karma.
  • Spreading rumors or gossip: Speaking negatively about others can create disharmony and generate negative Karma.
  • Engaging in physical violence: Causing harm to others can generate negative energy and create negative Karma.
  • Stealing: Taking something that does not belong to you can generate negative energy and create negative Karma.
  • Engaging in harmful addictions: Engaging in activities that are harmful to oneself or others, such as substance abuse or gambling, can create negative Karma.

It’s important to remember that Karma is not just limited to our actions toward others but also includes our thoughts and intentions.

Karma and Reincarnation

Karma and Samsara or rebirth are two key concepts in Buddhism that are deeply interconnected. According to Buddhist belief, the energy generated by our actions, thoughts, and intentions (Karma) continues to exist even after we die. This energy can then influence our next rebirth, determining the circumstances and conditions we are born in.

In other words, the quality of our Karma can determine whether we are reborn into a more positive or negative situation (damn, I hate those words). For example, we engage in positive actions and thoughts. In that case, we are more likely to be reborn into a more favorable circumstance, such as a happy family or a peaceful environment. Conversely, negative actions and thoughts can lead to a rebirth in a more difficult circumstance, such as poverty or suffering.

The connection between Karma and rebirth emphasizes cultivating positive qualities and engaging in positive actions. This can help create more positive Karma and lead to a more positive rebirth. This idea is not meant to be seen as a form of punishment or reward but rather as an opportunity for spiritual growth and development.

Buddhists believe that the ultimate goal is to break the cycle of rebirth (samsara) altogether and attain enlightenment, which involves transcending the limitations of Karma and reaching a state of ultimate freedom and liberation. By understanding the connection between Karma and rebirth, Buddhists can strive towards this ultimate goal and work to create positive energy in their lives and in the world around them.

Karma and Personal Responsibility

The concept of Karma in Buddhism emphasizes the importance of personal responsibility for one’s actions, thoughts, and intentions. It asserts that every action we take has consequences and can create positive or negative energy that influences our present and future experiences.

Regarding personal responsibility, Karma teaches that individuals have control over their destiny and that the quality of their future experiences is determined by their present actions. This means that individuals are responsible for the choices they make and the actions they take in their lives. 

The concept of Karma highlights the importance of self-reflection and awareness in cultivating positive qualities and generating positive energy. It encourages individuals to take responsibility for their actions and consider their impact on themselves and others.

Ultimately, Karma teaches that individuals have the power to shape their own lives and create a better future through their actions and intentions.

How to Improve Your Karma?

In Buddhism, improving Karma is about cultivating compassion-based intentions and actions to generate favorable energy that will influence one’s present and future experiences. 

Here are some ways to improve your Karma:

  • Meditation: Practicing meditation is also a great way to improve your Karma as it helps cultivate inner peace and clarity, leading to a more positive outlook on life and helping you make more conscious choices. 
  • Cultivate mindfulness: Mindfulness helps you become aware of your thoughts and actions, allowing you to make conscious decisions that align with positive intentions.
  • Practice generosity: Giving to others without expecting anything in return generates positive Karma, which can lead to better future experiences.
  • Engage in positive actions: Engage in actions that benefit yourself and others, such as volunteering or donating to charity.
  • Avoid negative actions: Avoid actions that harm others or create negative energy, such as lying, stealing, or engaging in harmful behaviors.
  • Practice self-reflection: Reflect on your actions and their impact on yourself and others. Use this awareness to make positive changes and cultivate positive intentions.
  • Seek forgiveness: When you have caused harm to others, seek forgiveness and make amends to generate positive energy and improve your Karma.

There are millions of ways to generate favorable Karma. Remember, improving your Karma is continually cultivating positive intentions and actions. 

By taking responsibility for your actions and making conscious choices, you can generate positive energy and create a better future for yourself and those around you.

Misconceptions About Karma

As Westerners, we often have many misconceptions and false beliefs about Karma. These misunderstandings can prevent us from fully understanding the concept and its importance. Recognizing and addressing these misconceptions is essential to gain a more accurate and nuanced understanding of Karma.

Here are some of the common misconceptions about Karma:

  • Karma is punishment and reward: Karma is not about punishment or reward but rather the consequences of our actions. The energy we generate through our intentions and actions creates an imprint that can influence our present and future experiences.
  • Karma is predetermined: Karma is not predetermined but rather a result of our free will and choices. While our past actions may influence our present and future experiences, we can always make choices that lead to better outcomes.
  • Karma is always immediate: Karma may not always have immediate results. Sometimes the consequences of our actions may not manifest until later in life or in future lives.
  • Karma is only individual: Karma is not only individual but can also be collective and ancestral, as the actions of our ancestors and society can influence our present and future experiences.
  • Karma is a way to judge others: Karma is not a way to judge others but rather a tool for personal growth and accountability. Focusing on others’ Karma can lead to negative energy and judgments rather than personal responsibility and positive change.

Understanding these misconceptions can help us better understand Karma and its role in our lives, leading to more positive intentions and actions.


In conclusion, understanding Karma is essential for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of Buddhism and its teachings. 

By recognizing Karma as a concept emphasizing personal responsibility and the consequences of our actions, we can make positive changes in our lives and improve our overall well-being. 

While there may be misconceptions about Karma, exploring and understanding this concept can lead to a more optimistic outlook on life and greater control over our experiences.

Even if one does not believe in Karma or is not a Buddhist, it does not change the fact that Karma is a reality. 

By embracing the principles of Karma, we can strive toward a more fulfilling and meaningful existence.