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#karma  is a concept often misunderstood in the West, to the point of making Asians laugh. Recently,…
June 12th, 2012 (June 13th, 2012)
#karma  is a concept often misunderstood in the West, to the point of making Asians laugh. Recently, I came across three funny instances:
1/ someone interested in #Buddhism  reacted to a point on vegetarianism with the view of karma from... the Jains. Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism all share the concept of karma (influencing this life and rebirth) but disagree on what plants karmic seeds: ritual acts, all actions or intentions...
2/ someone tried to support another human being by claiming having "seen karma in action and when karma comes around it takes no prisoners and you will be victorious!!" I expected us to agree when I warned against the temptation of "blame" visible in the discussion, but I attracted heavy criticism instead...
3/ someone suggested Tibetans might have been really bad people in previous lives, and have really bad karma, to suffer what they go through now with China...

So...
1/ Karma in Buddhism relates to intention. If you kill some insect without intention of killing, it's not bad karma, it's not good karma, it just has no karma attached. Deliberately not taking precautions is bad intention... If you exhaust resources and make other beings starve, the karmic consequences relate to the intention: if you exhausted resources out of greed and eating more than you needed, bad karma; if you exhausted resources inadvertently, having paid attention and being utterly convinced there was enough for everyone, no karma.
2/ Karma in Buddhism does not "turn around" by itself. It does so only by us changing our perspectives and habits (intentions or actions (physical translations of our intentions)); hence the best way to support someone to get a better karma is to question their intentions, perspectives and behaviours. Only by changing intentions can one change karma. Karma is not a promise that things will get better when they're bad, like some kind of pendulum.
3/ Karma in Buddhism is not a retribution law. What leads to suffering according to Buddhism is craving and attachment. Maybe a strong reason why Tibetans suffer today is their particularly strong attachment to the Himalayan plateau or to specifics of the Tibetan culture (and nobody would be surprised if such specific attachments could lead to rebirth in Tibet)... Attempting to interpret the karma of others —commonly to justify that they're "paying" for bad karma, and that it's thus acceptable not to help them— constitute a massive waste of time —and a missed opportunity for compassion!

Firstly, karma is not the only law: physical laws, biological laws, psychological laws also exist. Not everything is explained by karma. Shortcuts regularly lead to forgetting this (and 'assign' to karma what has nothing to do with it).
Secondly, karmic law is a moral law, but not a retribution law; it doesn't try to balance good and bad, it doesn't promise you any punishment or reward. It combines two aspects: it recognises the existence of tendencies —similar stimuli repeatedly get similar (re)actions from us— and it recognises "cause and effect." Karma basically states that if you keep repeating a particular (re)action, or keep having a particular intention, one day or another you will certainly face the moral consequences... It is "cause and effect" rather than retribution in the sense that no superior entity decrees for you what's wholesome or unwholesome. You will reap what you have intentionally sown; that's it. Ignorance of the karmic consequences does not shield you from the consequences, but lack of intention does. Ultimately, we all know that we all seek happiness and that we're inter-dependent... so we don't need any moral authority to tell us what's wholesome or not.
Finally, there is no determinism for one act: previous acts may have planted opposite karma, other conditions and other laws may interfere... There is determinism —hence a karmic 'law'— only if you keep repeating acts: as circumstances change, 'one day' they will be ripe for you to face the moral consequences of that repeated intention. That might be the first day, or that might be in a far future... The lack of absolute act-by-act determinism is quite key to attaining Liberation: it lets opportunities arise to compensate for bad acts before their consequences ripen, it lets opportunities arise to get out of the cycle altogether (by de-automating our reactions, thus getting free of cravings and tendencies)... and yes, sometimes other circumstances actually hinder good karma. Not everything is explained by karma (in particular from a single intention/act) & karma is not the only law.

The one thing that matters with karma is: if you repeat intentions (incl. based on ignorance, misunderstandings, etc.), you'll eventually face their moral consequences. So the pertinent question is: how do you want to behave from now on?