As explained in a psychological view of karma (part 1), the Buddhist understanding of karmic actions entails some sort of intention. Therefore, as frequently misunderstood, our karma has more to do with the consequence of our past intentions than the result of our past deeds. But what about our karmic ‘effects’? Can an intention make us rich or poor? Are our intentions able to make us ill or healthy? Can our intention influence our life events? As I will explain, this might happen in secondary terms, but its primary effect always happens in the mind.
In the same way that karma, understood in its causal aspect, refers to the mental or volitional aspect of an action instead of the action itself (remember that karma means ‘action’, in Sanskrit); karma, understood as the consequences of our actions, refers primarily to its effects in our mind, however subtle they might be. These effects are referred in Buddhism as ‘mental traces’ or shankhāra (also sankhāra).
According to Buddhist scholars, shankhāra are “predispositions, the effect of past deeds and experience as conditioning a new state” (Edgerton, 1985). They are also described as impressions in our mind that give form and shape to our character (Tenzing, 1996). These impressions are mental residues of our previous experiences and deeds, leading to our present state of mind and the way we will experience reality in the future (Harvey, 2013).
For example, if I buy something out of greed, despite getting a temporary feeling of satisfaction in the next moment, this will make my mind more predisposed to act out of greed in the future. I am thus reinforcing a mental circuit of attachment, greed and reward, generating more greed for things, and therefore, I am more likely to experience life as scarce and empty if I don’t get what I want in the future, instead of life being abundant and exuberant had I acted out of generosity.
Karma as conditioned consciousness
Do you see now how the link between karma and our life works? It is not that because I have done something that certain things happen in my life. It is because I have done something with certain intention, that a mental trace, i.e. the psychic residue of my intention, stays in my mind affecting the way I experience and relate to my life in the next moment.
In other words, in Buddhism, karma primarily refers to the phenomenon that our consciousness is conditioned due to the volitions that preceded our deeds. Karma, in this way, is a form of conditioned consciousness that affects the way we experience the world, in the way we shape our character and in turn the way our future turns out to be.
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Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Grammar and Dictionary. F. Edgerton (1953; rep. 1985), Kyoto: Rinsen Book Co
Tenzing, T., Karma and Rebirth in Buddhism, (1996), http://www.dspace.cam.ac.uk/handle/1810/243078, [Accessed on 28 January 2022]
Harvey, P., An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013)
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