Intention: The Filter of Karma…

Karma cannot be deceived. It keeps unfolding. It is painfully democratic…. We cannot opt out of it. There is no timeout in life. Whatever we do lays a seed in our deepest consciousness, and one day that seed will grow. Every thought that occurs, especially if we water it with intention, plants a seed… –Sakyong Mipham, “Ruling Your World,” p. 52


I have discussed the difference between “karma” and “vipaka” several times in the past. Basically, the term karma, which means “action,” is what we do, not what happens to us; and vipaka, which means “ripening [effect]” is the result of our karma, i.e., our actions, good, bad, or indifferent. So, it is vipaka that happens to us, not karma. This is why it’s incorrect to say, when something bad happens to us, “Ah, well, I guess that’s just my karma.”

People who rob banks, get caught, and go to prison, don’t usually say, “Ah, well, I guess it’s just my karma,” as if they’d expected to be treated any differently after having been caught. Yet, interestingly enough, people who do say this are often implying that they have, somehow, been treated unfairly, or somehow, received treatment that they did not deserve in relation to what they did. And what they don’t realize is that karma, which is a far from linear process, has just handed them an opportunity to “act,” which could effect a completely different outcome — should they choose wisely. It is important to note, here, that it is not, as has so often been misstated, Buddhists who are fatalistic and morbid. Buddhists actually believe that it is possible to escape the web of karmic entanglement, if not the actual effects of the causes we ignite.

There is a man with whom I once regularly rode the bus. He is a Bible-believing, tract-distributing, testifying Christian. We are on very friendly terms, despite his unsuccessfully trying to bring me to Jesus, gently, several times. I’ve seen and heard him engage many people in repentant prayer as they’ve waited for the bus, as well as on the bus.Yet, what interests me most is his premise. He tells people that no matter what they’ve done in their pasts, immediate or otherwise, that simply by repeating the “Believers Prayer” with him, and giving their heart to Jesus, right there at the bus stop, that they will automatically be forgiven all their sins — completely — and no matter what they have done. He also tells them that should they backslide, they need only read the prayer, as spelled out on the tract he leaves with them, and repent, once again, sincerely, and they will once again be forgiven. Finally, in addition to that, he tells them that even if they completely return to a life of sin, and find themselves on their deathbeds, all they have to do is repent, and immediately after dying, they will go to be with Jesus in heaven — so great is His desire to forgive… And it is this “promise” upon which many professing “Christians” rely. Personally, I question this man’s interpretation of both the gospels and thus, Jesus Christ.

Buddhists believe that we keep coming back until we get it “right.” There’s no “final judgment” or end of days; in fact, we should be so lucky. Whereas a Christian commits murder, sincerely repents, dies and goes to be with God, a Buddhist commits murder, sincerely repents, dies, experiences rebirth, then because of wrongly taking a life, will “live a short life” or possibly be murdered him- or herself… Yet, because of the cycle of endless rebirths, part of the experience of samsara, and the intricately woven, multidimensional web of the karma of endless past lives, this “effect” might not come to fruition until many lifetimes later; or, it could manifest in other ways such as that person eventually also experiencing the loss of a loved one through violent means. The perfect and perennial example, here, is Maha Moggallona who, despite being one of the Buddha’s most accomplished monks, was murdered due to having murdered his own parents in a former life. He was assassinated, beaten to death — the method he had used to murder his own parents…

Additionally, if we kill someone, and it was because we were in a really bad mood that day, rather than in self defense (which would still be a “bad”), since we don’t believe in a personal deity, there’s no appeals process available. Karma is totally impersonal and completely unforgiving in that it requires the “cause” we’ve committed to play out to its inevitable effect; but for Christians, apparently, it is possible to spend one’s entire life stealing, lying, and murdering, but if they can just “go to Jesus” a few moments before they die — they’re forgiven. Now, to me, that sounds like a gross circumvention of justice, and it begs the question, “Is ‘forgiveness’ the same as not having to reap what one has sown?” Or to put it another way, can one willfully commit unconscionable acts, repeatedly, with no repercussions, simply by “going to Jesus?” Could Hitler have said, before he purportedly committed suicide, “Wow, Lord, maybe I overreacted,” and be standing at the Pearly Gates to greet “errant” Jews who finally saw the light and also became “Christians?” Or could he even be standing at the Pearly Gates with St. Peter to tell Jews who never came to Jesus that they’d best be set to spend eternity in another type of oven?

Karma is destiny, not fate; and many people don’t realize that there is a difference between the two. Fate implies that our experience is preordained and that no matter what we do, we’ll get the same result (particularly regarding unpleasant results). Conversely, destiny, also implies that certain events are bound to happen, but unlike fate, destiny can be shaped, i.e., there is the possibility of our influencing and thus, changing it. Therefore, in the language of karma, whenever we act, whether verbally, physically, or even thought-fully, we enter into an unerringly balanced mechanistic process of intricately interwoven cause-and-effect that favors no one person over another. And yes, this is a hard pill to swallow because such phenomena as racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia make this appear to be otherwise — but consider for a moment if this were true. Would it not call into question everything from the concept of babies being born “innocent” to the nature of “injustice,” itself?

Now, let us drill down even further. The term karma, refers to not only our actions, but also the intent that fuels those actions — and it is this line of reasoning that brings us to the always controversial Buddhist teachings that say there is truly no “good” or “bad” except in the relative sense. This view exists because karma is viewed through the filter of intention…I know of two situations where angry men have laid hands on other individuals with such force that they have broken those individuals’ ribs. I maintain that in the first case, they were “wrong,” and in the second case, they were “right.”

In the first situation of rib-breaking, the man used a baseball bat to break someone’s ribs in a fight predicated merely by drunkenness. In the second situation, a paramedic was administering CPR — and if you’ve ever been certified to administer CPR, you’ve most likely heard the shocking statement that if you administer CPR, and there are not any broken ribs, you’re probably not doing it right… So, my point, however simply supported, is that one could either be a person who gets into a bar fight every now and then, and only occasionally breaks a few ribs, or be a paramedic, and break ribs every day. In reference to rib-breaking, the vipaka for bar brawlers will be substantially different from that of the paramedics (unless it is their intention to break ribs)…

For a Buddhist, karma (his or her actions) is “God,” and consequently, this “God” determines whether our lives are pictures of peace, pandemonium, or a pairing of both. The pairing of both is often the result of past karma coming to fruition (ripening, or becoming vipaka), whether from earlier in our present lives, or from past lives. Unlike instant, repeated forgiveness that absolves us from any responsibility or culpability for our actions, the keyword for Buddhists is ‘intention.’ So, rather than repeatedly praying for forgiveness, we instead seek to refine our intentions (thoughts) — the source and fuel of our actions, so that our intentions, and thus, karma, will first be purified, and then, extinguished.

And interestingly enough, the term nirvana, which is popularly interpreted as meaning some kind of phenomenal liberation or bliss, literally means “blown out,” as in “extinguished,” with regard to the fires of desire, aversion, and delusion, the hallmarks of samsara (suffering)… This summons another interesting difference between Christian theology and Buddhist thought. Christians are first born again in hopes of living forever; but Buddhists seek to end suffering, once and for all, by quenching the flame of repeated rebirths, and never returning (unless they take the Bodhisattva vow)… Hence, the Buddha’s “parinirvana,” or final death…Buddhists believe, regarding the Buddha, unlike Christians believe, regarding Jesus Christ, that the Buddha was a man; he’s dead; and he’s not coming back. Finally, unlike Christians who worship Jesus Christ, we do not worship the Buddha, or pray to him. The Buddha was a man. A man. We rejoice that he achieved his supreme intention. And we rejoice that all men and women can be as he was.

Sadhu! Sadhu! Sadhu!

And of course, Namaste.


The Bodhisattva Vows from

Mukpo, Mipham J. Ruling Your World. New York: Three Rivers Press. 2005. Print.

The Killing of Maha Moggalana. Wisdom Quarterly Blogspot (Monday, Dec. 28, 2009).