What is Karma? Understanding karma as a natural force versus a mystical force
The original concept
Today, Karma is a widely recognized concept that has gained a great deal of belief from a variety of people. The concept is no longer restricted just to those practicing Buddhism or other Eastern religions that acknowledge it as a force in the universe. However, the concept of karma mostly evolved within the context of Buddhism. Other Eastern religions also have a long standing history of recognizing karma as a religious truth, but it is within Buddhism that it has gained most of its refinement. In traditional Buddhism, karma is a force that moves a person's soul or essence through reincarnation after reincarnation, taking their actions for good or for bad to shape how the world would treat them in turn and designating what they would be reborn as. All actions taken by an individual create a karmic debt, which can be both good or bad, and this debt is paid off as things happen to us in life. Nirvana, or freedom from this unending cyclical existence, is achieved through Enlightenment, which is believed to stop the accumulation of karma and remove all karmic dept, thus preventing rebirth and removing the enlightened individual from a universe of unending suffering. Buddhism, like all religions, has taken the term to mean different things at different times to different people. Some Buddhists believed karma to be so literal that calling someone an animals name as an insult could result in being reincarnated as that animal! Others, especially the Zen Buddhists, have taken it to mean more of a natural force that simply exists within the world, no more mystical than gravity. So what is karma? Is it a mystical force that pays us back for our good and bad deeds over many lifetimes? Does it have to involve reincarnation at all? Or, is it a law of nature? Is it something amazing, but hardly religious?
Karma the Mystical Force
The idea that karma is some sort of mystical or cosmic force that takes good and evil deeds performed by an individual and makes sure the universe pays them back in kind is probably the definition of karma with which most of us are familiar. While this may be the most popular view, its also a view with a very serious problem. The nature of the problem was most eloquently put by C. S. Lewis in his work The Screwtape Letters. Here he points out that in order for Karma to pay back good with good and evil with evil, it would have to be able to recognize what good and evil are. Even more so, it would have to apply good deeds and evil deeds with each individual's psychology and personal needs in mind. For instance, if someone is deathly afraid of water or of drowning, it would hardly be good karma to win a boat in some cosmic windfall. However, if someone loves to sail, the same boat in the same windfall is clearly something good. This kind of recognition, both of the deeds done by individuals as good or evil and their recompense in context of the individual's wants and needs, means that karma would have be a very intelligent force. That means that now we have an intelligent cosmic force doling out justice, and Lewis points out that this sounds very much like the concept of a god. So karma can't be a mystical force, because what it claims to do requires it not to be an impartial cosmic force, but instead some kind of deity. This idea wasn't first recognized by Lewis, though his analysis is one of the first real examinations of karma done in English. The problem stated in that argument is why a great deal of modern practicing Buddhists don't recognize karma as a mystical force, but instead a natural one.
Karma as a Natural Force
Now don't get the wrong impression here. When I say that Karma can be recognized as a natural force, I'm not talking about physical forces like gravity and electromagnetism. Karma as a natural force still isn't a scientific concept that can be supported or dismissed with empirical data. So then, what is Karma as a natural force? It's actually quite simple.
The example once given to me by a Buddhist monk I had the good fortune of once knowing was this; if you put your hand on a hot stove, you will get burned. That's karma. My immediate reaction was to say, no, that's physics and biology. My hand coming into contact with a hot surface causes everything required for the burn to appear and for me to feel pain. But that wasn't the point at all. The idea presented here is that your actions have consequences and that this is the force the drives karma, or perhaps that this is the force that is karma. The consequences of some actions are easy to see, such as the hot stove example. It's a pretty bad idea to put your hand on a hot stove, but if you do, there will be consequences (in this case, a painful burning hand). The consequences of other actions are not so simple to see. If, for instance, you enact violence on the behalf of another one day and then later in life you find either the person you assaulted or the person you defended in a position to determine your fortune (perhaps getting you a job interview, or giving you a needed loan), each case has vastly different consequences. But no matter what, there will be consequences. Every action we perform can bring unforeseen consequences back upon us for good or for ill for the rest of our lives. That is the idea of karma as a natural force. Karma becomes a description for how our actions come back to affect us through chains of consequences and shows us how truly interconnected everything is.
The first objection to seeing Karma this way is that Karma is no longer a force of justice. That's true, and reasonable objection. Bad things happen to people who mostly do good, and good things happen to people who mostly do bad. But consider this; the more good you do in this world, the more consequences of that good reverberate in the world. The better you treat people, they are more likely to treat you well when they find themselves in a position of power over you. The more you give, the more you are likely to be given. The basic concept is that by setting off more chain reactions of consequences by acting good and just, then more of those chains will come back and repay us for what we have done. The same applies to actions we take that are cruel or unjust.
Now, a Buddhist that believes in reincarnation is less likely to be bothered by the lack of immediate fairness and justice, since they believe they will be reincarnated and the things they do in this life can still affect them in the next. Imagine in one life you make a law to put all people of a certain race to death in a given country. Then imagine you die and are reincarnated as a person of that race in that country. That would be karma affecting you from one life to next. It may sound statistically unlikely, but it makes a great deal of sense within the religion, because who you are and what you do is supposed to have a great effect on who or what you come back as.
That's karma as a natural force. It's a word we can use to conceptualize that our actions have an effect on the world, that consequences cascade into more consequences, and eventually we all find ourselves at the mercy of the consequences of our own actions. If my preference for this view wasn't clear before, I'll admit my bias now. I like this concept so much because it encourages us to do good and to be good, not because some deity will reward or punish us, not because some force will bring us good or evil as payment, but instead because by doing good and being good, the simple consequence is that there is more good in the world. The more good we put in the world, the more good we're likely to receive from it. Karma then becomes a fact as simple as knowing that putting our hand on a hot stove will burn it, and helps us to see it is a force as natural and irrefutable as gravity.