Dr Thanh-Tam Pham - 11/9/2018


What is Karma?

Karma in Buddhism refers to action driven by intention which leads to future consequences. This is the law of cause and effect.

Any kind of intentional action whether mental, verbal or physical is regarded as Karma. Involuntary, unintentional or unconscious actions do not constitute Karma because volition, the most important factor in determining Karma is absent.

Those intentions are considered to be the determining factors in the kind of rebirth in Samsara (the cycle of Rebirths). Therefore, we are responsible for our own happiness and misery. We create our own Heaven or we create our own Hell.

The difference in Karma explains the inequality in the world such as in the birth of beings in high or low status, be happy or miserable, be beautiful or ugly, be wealthy or poor, be generous or mean…

Karma embraces past and present deeds. We are the result of what we were, we will be the result of what we are. Karma is neither fate nor predestination imposed upon us by some mysterious unknown power. It is our own doing so it is possible to change the course of our own Karma to some extent.

Every birth is conditioned by a bad or good Karma that predominates at the moment of death. Karma that conditions the future birth is called Reproductive Karma. The death of the person is merely a temporary end of a temporary phenomenon. The present form perishes and another form which is neither the same nor absolutely different takes its place according to the Karmic force. It is the last thought that determines the state of a person in his subsequent birth. This may be either good or bad Karma.

Good or bad habits we carry in our lives will become our second nature and form our character and personality. At unguarded moments, we often lapse into our own habitual mental mindset that could be angry or peaceful, selfish or compassionate. In the same way, at the moment of death, we usually recall our own habitual deeds or mindset unless influenced by other circumstances.

The lower realms are conditioned by intense anger, hatred, greed and delusion and when we develop them as a pattern of response to situations, they become a strong force in the mind that is hard to break. We then experience the present Karma of the painful feelings in the moment, but we also create the conditions for possible rebirth in realms of terrible sufferings.

The human realm is said to be the most conducive for developing wisdom and compassion because of its particular mixture of pain and pleasure. In the lowest realms, the intensity and the degrees of suffering is too great for most beings to develop wholesome states of mind, while in the higher realms, the condition is so blissful that there is little inspiration to practice. It is precisely the combination of pain and pleasure in the human realm that provides the best circumstances for deep understanding of the true nature of this world and practice to attain wisdom and freedom from suffering.


Can we change our Karma?

The law of Karma refers to the law of cause and effect. If we act motivated by greed, hatred, selfishness, we are planting the seed of suffering. When we act with generosity, compassion or wisdom then we are creating the Karmic conditions for happiness and abundance.

Karma specifically refers to volition, the intention or motive behind our action. Through mindfulness, we become aware of the nature of our actions and hence can change our Karma. If we are unaware of the motives in our mind, when unwholesome volitions arise, we may mindlessly act on them and create the conditions for future suffering.

The cause and effect can be immediate. When we have a mind state of love and compassion, we naturally feel open, happy and loving. Similarly when we are in a state of anger, greed, hatred, we stimulate our autonomic nervous system to increase heart rate, blood pressure and discomfort feelings arise. By our awareness of how the Karmic law is working in each moment, it helps us to have the determination to develop wholesome states of mind that create happiness in the present moment as well as produce the fruit of wellbeing in the future.

Every mind state, thought or emotion that we experience repeatedly will become stronger and develop into a habit of reaction. We tend not to pay attention to this conditioning factor of our experience such as having a burst of anger , thinking that once it has passed , it is gone without leaving any result or residue. Each mind state that we experience, further conditions and strengthens it, as it requires less energy to follow the same neuronal pathway in our brain. It also can leave a long lasting result in the other person’s mind to further complicate our relationship with others.

To change our bad habit, our unskilled mindset, we need to invest a lot of energy to create a new neuronal pathway in our brain. But once a new pathway is formed, it will become easier and easier with time for the new wholesome mental state to arise in the future.

We almost always seem to want to blame others or the circumstances or the world to justify our own views and feelings.

We can see in people who are in relationships that gone sour for many years and they live in sadness, bitterness and hurt and they cultivate anger, hatred and therefore are imprisoned in hopelessness and loneliness. They are stuck in a lifetime habits of not seeing clearly but only reacting and blaming each other.

Ignorance is the unawareness that we repeat the cycle of the past conditioning over and over again thinking that we cannot change our circumstances or cannot alter our course.

We have the power to change our course when we become aware of our past conditioning from childhood and patterns or expectations from our ancestors and past lives. We may have repressed feelings or emotional wounds in the past that are unresolved.  We have to release any conflicts, come to term with any emotional trauma to be able to assign a different meaning to the past and move forward. When we realise the past is empty, then every present moment is a possibility for us to begin anew.  But before we can deeply understand the above, we need to cultivate forgiveness and compassion for ourselves and for others for any mistakes made in the past. We will have a deep knowledge about how the different events although painful have played an important part to shape us the way we are now. We will then feel immense gratitude and peace for all that happened in the past. We will cultivate profound self love and acceptance for any parts of us that felt ashamed, rejected or victimised. We can then truly forgive others for what happened and even understand our part in creating our past. Without forgiveness and acceptance of the past, it can be challenging to be present, as the past will likely haunt and project into the present. This is a process that may take a long time. And one day, we realize we are free of the past and the present is a blank sheet of paper that we can rewrite it, based on our new beliefs and mindfulness.

People sometimes when reflecting on the law of Karma will have feelings of guilt for past unwholesome actions. Guilt is aversion toward ourselves, being non- forgiving and is an inappropriate and useless feeling or burden. In the infinite time of our births through all the realms of existence, we have done so many different kinds of actions wholesome and unwholesome. When we understand this, we have the courage to take responsibility for our past actions with an attitude of compassion and we are strongly determined not to repeat it again. Wisdom will help with self forgiveness.

To change our Karma, we start to train our mind as through our mind that all our thoughts, feelings, impulses and perceptions can translate into actions in this life. With meditation, we can practice to sit still and be aware of the present moment, aware of our mind and let go of any outward activity and thus can break the flow of the old Karma to create a healthier one. Meditation is one of the techniques used to modify the old habitual patterns of reactions. We are simply aware of the present moment without any personal input or reactions and see the unwholesome thoughts arise and disappear. If there is no mindfulness now, how can it magically appears later under stress for us to be aware of our actions.

With mindfulness, we can be aware of our mindset and being aware of what is actually happening, to know that which actions are skilful or unskilful to bring the results that we want. When mindfulness is weak, we are unaware of our intentions and often not paying attention to our action and we may be led by our habitual patterns into actions that bring painful results.

Each action, no matter how insignificant it may seem, will lead to a future result and also reconditions the mind. If we get lost in a moment of anger, we are actually cultivating the habit of anger. If we give way to greed, we are cultivating greed.

If we do not understand Karma but knowing the aspect of emptiness of phenomena, it can be used as a rationale for not taking responsibilities in our lives. Some people try to justify their poor behaviour by thinking that the nature of this life is empty so nothing matters and they try to enjoy mindlessly at the expense of others.

If we are sensitive to the law of Karma, we become more responsible for our actions and the results, and it helps us to have a genuine understanding of emptiness.

We not only need to be mindful of our mind and our action, we also need to be mindful of the feeling of others. A simple rule to follow is do not do anything that we do not want others to do to us. We have to put ourselves in the shoes of others to understand the impact of our behaviour to others. Sometimes we think that we mean well but in some instances our behaviour may cause more hurt and suffering to the other person because we are insensitive to his/her feelings.


Compassion and insight arise from understanding Karma. When we understand that unfair, harmful actions rebound in suffering to the person committing them as well as to the recipient, we can change by adopting compassion rather than anger and resentment.

The Buddha often spoke of the great power of generosity. The purity of the mind of the one giving and of the one receiving and the purity of the gift itself strengthen the Karmic force of each act of generosity.

Another higher level is to extend our thoughts of loving kindness toward all beings. When we genuinely open our hearts to have a deep feeling of connection to all beings, we then strengthen the motivation to develop wholesome thoughts and actions. When we realise deeply about the impermanent nature of phenomena, we can open our mind to the possibility of non attachment leading to freedom from suffering.


In summary, when we act on Karmic habits, their strength increases. We can gradually weaken the negative thoughts and impulses through allowing them to arise and depart naturally without acting on them. With mindfulness, we can create new wholesome mindset and in this way Karmic habits can be broken. Through understanding the law of Karma, we can take responsibility of our own destinies and achieve greater fulfilments in our lives.