For the first time available in English, a collection of Tibetan teaching stories helps us see how modest acts can have major consequences.
“When the time arrives—even if
A hundred eons pass—
Fruit is born of every act
That sentient beings amass.”
Why is karma, one of the most central Buddhist concepts, so hard to wrap our minds around? It’s nearly impossible for most of us to avoid mistaking karma for a system of reward and retribution, in which we are punished for our “bad” behavior and compensated for the “good.” As Buddhists, even as we work toward kindness and compassion for all beings, we often easily wind up deflated and frustrated with ourselves. The guilt we feel imprisons us in inaction, and we are left struggling to change even small habits. How do we stop blaming ourselves for what happens to us and start feeling empowered to change it?
When we experience the power of wise action, we can truly understand our innate potential for self-determination. This capacity lives deep inside all of us but is obscured by our layers of confusion about how reality works. Understanding what karma is—and is not—lets us tap into that power that is always present. Then we can truly begin to change our lives. As we get a feel for karma as action, we can begin to connect our actual actions to their eventual results. Then we’ll start to understand how what we are doing now will dictate what our future will be like. In the classical texts, the discussion is framed not in terms of “good karma” or “bad karma” but rather of “virtuous (kushala)” and “non-virtuous (akushala)” deeds. These terms come from the Sanskrit texts that appear in translation in the Tibetan canon and are more closely tied to notions of benefit and harm than the ways we often talk about karma in everyday conversation. The texts tell us that these two types of actions naturally ripen into the fruits of our future lives and life experiences.
How do we stop blaming ourselves for what happens to us and start feeling empowered to change it?
The difference between this definition and our earlier misunderstanding of karma is that there is no third party passing judgment. There is simply a given action and its corresponding result. When we focus less on dodging imaginary punishments and more on planting seeds for the future with our beneficial thoughts and actions, we are on the right track.
How do we get there, though? Fortunately, one does not have to become a monastic or a Buddhist scholar to begin to understand how to apply karma to our lives. One genre of Buddhist literature consists of stories known as avadanas, narratives passed down orally over centuries as teaching tools. Scholars imagine they were used, for example, by monks and nuns in the homes of householders who were hosting the monastics for their midday meal. Avadanas are intended to inspire faith and devotion in the listener by providing lessons about the workings of karmic cause and effect. They are entertaining, often humorous, occasionally heartbreaking, and meant to be accessible to people who are working, tending to families, and otherwise living life out in the world—just like us.
In fact, in the majority of the stories householders are at the center of the events that take place. They feature a rich cast of characters including beings from all six realms of existence. There are businesspeople, couples trying to conceive, older adults, spellcasters, sex workers, women fleeing unhappy marriage arrangements, people with disabilities—no matter who you are, there is probably a story that features someone you can relate to as either the protagonist or a supporting character. There are talking animals, beautiful gods and demigods, fantastical hell beings, and anguished spirits, as well as luminary figures from the sangha of the Buddha’s disciples, both monks and nuns.
The Karmashataka, a sutra whose title means “A Hundred Deeds,” is a collection of over 120 avadanas. After nearly a decade of work, the translation organization 84000 has recently finished the first English version, which is now available online at read.84000.co. Each avadana tells a story that ends with the Buddha explaining what happened in terms of karma, laying out which of the characters’ past actions ripened into their current predicament or good fortune…