illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)
[Warning: this is from Tibetan Buddhism (Gelug) and is not necessarily a view shared with many other Mahāyāna schools.]
For a presentation of the "three types of persons", see my previous post at http://gplus.wallez.name/7c84JanktA2
[Warning: this is an advanced teaching, susceptible of confusing readers by prematurely weakening buddhist 'views'. You may prefer not to read this for now, if you're new or recent on the Path.]
Karma is often misunderstood as some retributive mechanism bringing some balance (by reward or punishment) after some deviation from equilibrium. Causality never talks about balance: balance may arise from a causal web of conditions but balance may only be a mere consequence of causality, not the 'goal' of causality.
From the Theravāda school, Kamma Niyama is only one among four other causal laws: Utu Niyama (which modern science would call 'physics'), Bija Niyama ('biology'), Citta Niyama ('psychology') and Dhamma Niyama ('philosophy', and 'natural order' or 'normality' —which would cover the "happy coincidences" that made for example the Earth be neither too close nor too far from the Sun thus compatible with life, would also cover the Hubble constant, speed of light, etc.).
Kamma Niyama and the other causal laws say one thing: this 'cause' plays a role in how consequences will unfold.
So karma very much says that one's intention (which co-arise with views —both intention and views being "mental constructions") will play a role in how future events will unfold.
To understand this is a good tool to progress on a spiritual path, as it allows the introduction of wholesome vows and precepts… This is essential for the person of small capacities, who cannot just yet abandon all views (but may benefit from wholesome views replacing ignorant views).
The Buddha made clear that 'wholesome' karma or 'good' karma still is a form of clinging to views, and that this will have to be abandoned to attain nirvāṇa; the parable of the raft says as much. Consistently with causality though, wholesome karma may offer human rebirths (or better), which in itself multiplies the opportunities to achieve Liberation.
Persons of medium capacity would learn that anattā (selflessness) is compatible with karma, a lot more than ātman (soul) is! Nāgārjuna 's analysis applies quite well to such situations, showing how for karma to have an effect, it needs the effect to manifest, i.e. it needs 'change' to manifest, i.e. it requires the 'person' not to exist independently. 'Inherent' or 'intrinsic' existence would prevent karma from having effects…
Once the 'person', the 'soul' and the 'self' have been understood as mirage empty of own-being, thanks to causality, the risk is obviously that karma and other forms of causality could be reified themselves.
If not directly, it could be reified indirectly, and as a matter of fact Je Tsongkhapa (1357–1419) —and later advocates such as Jamyang Shayba (1648-1721)— did explicitly reject the alaya-vijnana (store-consciousness) for example.
Following Nāgārjuna, karma is also a narrative, empty of own-existence. It is one way for a consciousness to try to give sense to the contingency of the world. The buddha made clear that, while understanding karma may help us to make wholesome choices in our own lives, karma cannot really be used to predict or judge events happening to others! A past karmic chain can often be told, simply because karma 'is' a narrative in the first place: it is possible when reaching Enlightenment to see one's past lives… But to predict the future is a completely different matter which would require fixed 'rules' for a contingent reality! If these rules are not supported by analysis, karma is 'just' a narrative (empty of own-existence just like emptiness is empty).
Nāgārjuna addressed the 'emptiness' of karma in the Mulamadhyamakakarika, and some Madhyamika followers actually had a rather dismissive attitude toward virtuous life, as being an illusion.
Tsongkhapa actually contributed a lot to this debate by linking in the Lamrim Chenmo the "three types of persons" with the "common path". This gives a key role to the karmic narrative for persons of lower capacity, without denying its emptiness for persons of greater capacities. Persons of medium capacity are very much those on the Hīnayāna Path and are expected to realise the emptiness of karma as the fruit of their stage, but not necessarily as the basis of their stage.
This is a complicated matter, which has challenged buddhists over the generations. Karma is presented as essentially individual, which requires a 'conventional' view. A profound understanding of anattā (selflessness), let alone of śūnyatā (emptiness), cannot sustain an individual interpretation, but at the same time anattā and śūnyatā supports how karma could be 'causally' effective!
This non-individuality may lead to the bodhisattva vows, once one realises that the karma of 'one' is inter-dependent with the karma of 'others'.
At the same time, 'conventional' truth is part of the "two truths". Emptiness is 'form'; it doesn't reject 'form', and so karma can be causal while also being empty of own-nature.
One interpretation of how this is possible is that as long as one believes in a 'self', one 'appropriates' a narrative as being this 'self': it appropriates values as one's own, a narrative called a past as one's own, it appropriates mental fabrications (most notably 'reasons' and 'goals') as one's own, etc. But since all these are empty, the stream of consciousness tries to 'solidify' all these constituents…
One way to solidify one's so-called 'past' is to also appropriate so-called 'consequences'. Even if the consequences are 'bad', to take them as 'mine' reifies the past as being 'real', 'solid', 'true'!
So the delusion about the 'self' also makes the delusion of karma effective!
Both are conventional and rely on the same appropriation mechanism, the same dependent origination. When the ignorance vis-a-vis the 'self' falls away, one can indeed become free from karma and stop cyclical existence. Contaminated karma is based on the same fundamental ignorance (grasping at true existence) as the 'self', and both perspectives co-sustain each other.
It is a great contribution of Tsongkhapa to unite two notions that pre-existed separately, the "three types of persons" and the "common path", and to integrate karma in a coherent manner in the Lamrim Chenmo.
This text can be seen as a guide to a practical deconstruction of the delusion of the 'self'; however, it does so with a theoretical deconstruction of the delusion of karma:
• the first part, for persons of lower capacity, very much presents karma as real, certain and effective, it simply taps in the only truth these persons can see (the conventional truth);
• but the second part, for persons of medium capacity, while not discarding or conflicting with the previous presentation, very much focuses on impermanence, selflessness and suffering (the three characteristics or existence) either directly or via the Four ennobling truths (http://gplus.wallez.name/eVFH1vmfz3g). This will naturally lead to questions about the 'individual' nature of karma, about the permanency of any karmic 'seeds', about how a causal cycle may be broken if it is 'inherently' causal or 'inherently' cyclical, etc;
• the third part, for persons of greater capacity, very much relies on a wholesome view, and on wisdom, that accepts karma as a wholesome teaching device and no longer as some certain truth. One may note that such presentation is very compatible with the tantric contribution, for which Liberation can be achieved potentially in this very life, by opposition to other presentations in which the fruit for persons of medium capacity would be presented already as many lives away (maybe even eons). Again, tantra would not deny the 'form' of causality, but it understands its emptiness and thus doesn't presume much duration as a requirement to cease: it very much understands that karma can be 'dropped' when one stops appropriating it as one's own, and this cessation of appropriation can be achieved in this life.
Fundamentally, karma is a narrative (empty of own-being) of moral causality; it is causal only because we make it causal. But this is not presented as such to persons of lower or even medium capacities, for there is urgency to amend unwholesome views (prior to enquiring into the emptiness of all views).
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Image: calligraphy "cause and effect" by © Tashi Mannox