Dharma, simply put, is Nature’s law. The way things are meant to be in Nature. The way water flows to its lowest point, choosing the path of least resistance, and gradually dissolves that which impedes its progress.
Describing what Karma is would be perhaps like a sack you carry with you through life. Though unlike a regular sack that can only get heavier, a Karma sack can become lighter than air, or like a balloon, lift you up when filled with more positive (light or floating) things than negative (heavy) things. How do you end up carrying things around in your Karma sack? By performing actions that break Nature’s law (the Dharma concept we described earlier) you increase the heavy things. By performing actions that reinforce Nature’s law, you increase the positive light things, and can even get rid of some of the negative heavy things you accumulated earlier.
So let’s say, for example, that the Natural state of two people is simple co-existence – that is, they really don’t affect one another, and each person lives independently. An example of negative karma would be doing something towards that person that resulted in them having a negative experience, like lying, cheating or stealing from them. A positive karma element might be helping the other person, teaching the other person, or giving something to them.
A religious element to Buddhism would be the concept of reincarnation, or living with the consequences of what you have done before in past lives, and taking into consideration that your daily actions impact the lives of your future self. But even further than that, Buddhism also takes into consideration all spiritual influences, positive and negative, of every person you have affected for ten generations before the here-and-now. For practical purposes, this prevents someone from simply rationalizing, “Okay, I’m being really bad in this life. But so what, It’s mine to live? I one day die, and no one else suffers.” Buddhism teaches that compassion and suffering (or positive and negative karma) is a spiritual inventory that is continuously inherited from generation to generation. To put it really simply – if your life today is really horrible, it’s probably not just your own current actions that led to it being negative. You might be experiencing the result of ten generations of similarly negative lifetimes that have passed the burden on to you. Or looking at this in a strictly psychological manner, the selective experiences of your own ancestors, through parenting practices and behavioral modification, have resulted in how you tend to react to things.
So what do you do with this sack full of negatives? You start performing positive karma actions and help balance all the negatives that you’re carrying. This process is what we refer to as “cutting karma” or more accurately “cutting negative karma.” You might consider the beginning steps being similar to filing your taxes – you need to embrace and accept your own personal liabilities as well as assets. Being able to look into a mirror and accept what you see is an important breakthrough. Instead of immediately becoming critical and determining what you want to change (which becomes ego-centric or self-centered) accept what you see and see if you can have gratitude for what you have been given as a person.
Another critical step towards changing karma is to also respect others – do not let your own negative elements affect other people. While this is a relatively complex idea in concept, I found one of my first beginning questions about buddhist practice to be quite enlightening.
I asked, “What do buddhists do with a homeless person asking for money?” I already knew the principle of reducing your attachments to material things, like money. So it seemed sort of logical that you might just give it away to a needy person. Instead I was challenged with a different perspective: the homeless person has a heavy burden of negative karma. You add to that negative burden by reinforcing the person’s behavior, like pouring gasoline to put out a fire. Does the giving of money to that person lessen your guilty feeling about not doing something for them? (showing another self-centered action) Remember, you cannot really change anything or anybody else other than yourself. The same is true of everyone else. They must want to change themselves and also take steps to make the changes happen. It’s also important that helping a person does not necessarily mean making things easier for that person. Asking for a hand-out doesn’t signify the person wants to change what they’re doing, but asking for a job, or for some advice just might get them started on a new path. These days, when encountering someone asking for money, I’ll usually suggest they do something for someone that might result in a payment, like offering to play cards, or fortune telling, or simply being a good listener, rather than relying upon someone’s guilt..
I’m reminded of a simple instruction made by park rangers to tourists in Yellowstone National Park – Please do not feed the bears. Why? Is it because we would make the bears fat? Actually it’s because it creates unnatural expectations. The first time a previously-fed bear comes upon a tourist unwilling to feed them, it will get angry and frustrated, and result in dangerous and unpredictable outcomes. Did you think the bear was unable or unwilling to forage for its own food? Bears that figure out that it’s easier to open up a trash can, or break into a garage for its food, instead of finding and catching prey become dependent on that source. Humans are not that far from the bears in that respect.
So, you have to be very aware of your actions, especially related to how this balance of Karma works. Think carefully about how your actions can unexpectedly generate negative Karma for another person or thing. To serve others and your own self (and ancestors), one of the basic tenements of good behavior, we must also be aware of the appropriate forms that service can take without creating more negative burden in the process.